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Seven Deadly Storytelling Sins (part 1)

by Doug Lipman

I admit, "sins" is too strong a word. But any of these common mistakes can torpedo your storytelling. And that can mean a lost chance to communicate, a lost ally, or even a lost job.

Mistake #1: Telling Words, Not Images

Words have the same relationship to stories that instructions for a dance have to the dance.

If you focus too much on your dance instructions - where your feet are going - you lose both the pleasure and the expressive power of your dance. Similarly, if you focus too much on your story's words while telling, you will lose both your connection with your listeners and the expressive power of your story.

The fix: Begin by imagining the sensory details of a scene: what it looks like, sounds like, feels like. Then use spoken language (which includes words, tone of voice, posture, etc.,) to stimulate your listeners to join you in imagining the story.

Mistake #2: Ignoring Your Listeners

Many of us have been taught to "present" a story, not to communicate it. We act as though we are DVD players, doing "our thing" whether anyone is listening or not. We begin by practicing alone too much, which can amount to practicing ignoring our audience.

The fix: Practice with live listeners. Tell your story to a helping listener even before you know what it's about for you. Notice your listener's responses. "Grow" your story by talking about it to a series of helping listeners; then try it out on increasingly more demanding listeners. Continue until the story is communicating well to the kind of listener you intend to tell it to.

In daily life, some events are so interesting that we tell them over and over to lots of people. In time, the story develops a set form - not the form that we THOUGHT would work, but a form that DOES work. Use this natural method to hone your stories, basing your changes on the responses of many listeners.

Mistake #3: Overdosing Us with Morals

Stories give listeners a chance to have an imaginative experience, which they can then interpret for themselves. Any meaning that a listener creates for herself is more personal, compelling, and long-lasting than a meaning you state. If I enjoy your story but you over-interpret it for me, I will either resist the story or I will resist your interpretation - or both.

This is not to say that we can't use stories to illustrate morals or ideas, especially in business, teaching, preaching, or similar contexts. But the best tellers hit a perfect balance, for any given situation and audience, between guiding their listeners toward a particular meaning and allowing their listeners to discover meaning for themselves.

Mistake #4: Giving Too Many Scenes

To be sure, scenes - which consist of specific actions by specific characters in a specific place and time - make a story come alive in our imagination. But it is easy to overdo it, adding scenes that are merely distracting.

The fix: Become clear on your purpose in telling your story. After you tell the story to a helper, have your helper ask you, "Now that you just told the story, what is the story about for you?" or "What do you most love about it?" or "What draws you to it?" or "What effect would you love it to have on your listeners?" Your answer to your favorite of those questions is your Most Important Thing about the story (your "MIT"). In your story, include all scenes that are essential to your MIT - and omit all others!

It's Natural

When you avoid these first four mistakes (the rest of the seven will be in next month's newsletter), you don't automatically get a perfect story. But you will be closer to allowing your innate storytelling ability to flourish.

And that, in turn, will make it possible to command your listeners' attention, to engage them in imagining your story, and to unleash the natural power of your storytelling.

(Read part 2 of this article)

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman