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What Are Stories Made Of?

by Doug Lipman

Jerry (not his real name) came to one of my coaching sessions. He had prepared carefully. But when he told his story, the listeners found it hard to stay involved. The words made sense, but the story felt flat.

So (after appreciating the genuinely good things about his story and its structure), I got his permission to give him a suggestion. Then I asked him, "What are you thinking of, when you're telling?"

He said, "I'm thinking of the story!"

I said, "What does that mean you are actually thinking of?"

He said, "You know, I'm trying to remember the words."

I said, "I see. Don't tell me the story you learned. Just tell me what happened."

He told the same story, but not in its memorized form. He told it a little more hesitantly at first, but now we were involved in it! We sat a little more forward in our seats; we forgot about time passing. And Jerry became more animated in response - which made us even more captivated.

Jerry had made what is perhaps the most common storytelling mistake: to assume the story is made of words. The result: to memorize the words without thoroughly imagining what happens in the story.

In fact, stories are made of images (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile - any kind of images). Words (and postures, gestures, facial expressions, etc.) are just ways of communicating the images in your mind.

Just knowing this simple secret about storytelling improved Jerry's persuasiveness immediately. Once he began imagining the scenes in his stories as he told, his storytelling came alive.

Solving the Three Most Common Storytelling Problems

When we tell stories well - easily and naturally - we are actually imagining what happens in the story ... and only then using words to describe what we are imagining. (Some tellers use the same words every time; others use different words every time. Either method can produce great results, as long as the words we speak are connected to our senses and our hearts.) This helps solve three potential problems.

1. Learning a story.

Once you know to rely on images, learning a story will become much easier. Instead of worrying about words, you will put your attention first on imagining. You will find it much easier to remember a sequence of several images (pictures, sounds, feelings, etc.) than to remember a sequence of several hundred words. The words matter, of course. But not nearly as much as what you see, feel or hear in your mind.

2. Telling your story.

It will also be easier to tell. As you speak, you'll be imagining what really happens in the story. This will put your attention on what you want to communicate, not on the mechanics of communication. Your natural expressiveness will have a better chance of emerging.

3. Remembering your story.

And you won't have to worry about forgetting. The image will be there. You might forget the exact descriptive word you want. Fine. Use another word. The images will be there when you need them, permanently etched in your mind. They are your guides, your solid ground.

Storytelling is easy. It is an ancient, universal human activity. If you remember to go directly to its building blocks, the sensory images, you will be able to solve the problems that commonly hobble beginning storytellers - and leave your listeners wanting more.

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