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Your Hidden Storytelling Strengths (part 1)

As a coach, I sometimes hear people say, “I know what I’m doing well. Just tell me what I’m doing wrong.” They seem to take it for granted that their strengths are obvious.

But my experience suggests just the opposite. Discovering your strengths turns out to be a process that can take years – and pay many dividends.

Invisible Strengths?

I know three kinds of strengths that can be invisible to the person who has them:

1. Effortless strengths;
2. Previously discouraged strengths;
3. Diverted strengths.

In this series, I’ll speak to each of the three. I will also describe specific ways to uncover each kind of strength. This article, though, deals with the first kind: effortless strengths.

It’s So Easy, I Don’t Notice Doing It**

Many of the things that we do well are things we have done well for years. They require no effort, so we do them unknowingly.

Think of all the skills that infants lack but most adults have, such as being able to hold our head up, to walk, to sit for long hours. We are rarely aware of such skills because we no longer need to focus on them in order to use them.

Life Skills Applied to Storytelling

Some of the most difficult skills to notice, therefore, are the ones you learned long before you began storytelling as a conscious endeavor.

For example, Pam McGrath (my wife, a minister, and also a masterful storyteller) is expert at conveying a character’s attitude through tone of voice, facial expression, and other non-verbal means. Each of Pam’s characters can say a simple phrase like “How are you?” in a way that tells her audience how the character feels – bored, delighted, annoyed, etc. – and not just in broad strokes but in delicately nuanced specificity.

I asked Pam soon after we met how she learned to do that. She had no ready answer. In fact, she was a little surprised to hear that she did it.

Getting to know Pam over the years, though, I realized that she had developed that skill in part from her social setting. Pam grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where (as in most of the U.S. South) tone is considered more important than words. She was surrounded by people who nearly always spoke polite words but were nonetheless able to convey an infinite spectrum of less-than-polite attitudes through how the words were said.

Contrast Pam’s Southern culture with my Northern U.S. background. For us, people focused on what you said much more than on how you said it. We used tone, etc., to shade our meaning, of course. But we did so with less awareness and less artistry.

Building on Cultural Skills?

Pam, in addition to growing up in a nuance-oriented culture, was someone who became especially skilled in that cultural specialty.

Why? I suspect that part of the reason was that she was raised by a single mother in a time and place where divorced women were ostracized. The object of frequent, sometimes subtle insults as a little girl, Pam learned sensitivity to nuances – and to defend herself with subtleties of her own.

Later, when Pam learned storytelling as an adult, she naturally applied those skills to her stories, but without being aware that she was doing anything different from what anyone else would do.

Three Ways to to Notice

If you have effortless strengths like Pam’s, how can you notice them? I know three ways.

The first way is to ask for appreciations for your stories and your telling. This worked in Pam’s case, and can help with discovering strengths of any kind.

Nothing helps you notice your storytelling strengths like hearing a sensitive listener express what, for that listener, makes your storytelling effective or pleasing.

(For more about appreciations, see “The second principle” at, including the links there to other resources.)

One limitation of appreciations is that you might ignore them, assuming that the strength they mention is so common as to be trivial. In that case, supplement appreciations with the following two methods, which are specific to effortless strengths.

Doesn’t Everyone?

The second method for noticing an effortless strength makes use of your internal reactions when you hear appreciations (formal or informal) of any storyteller, including yourself. Look for your reactions along the lines of “But doesn’t everyone do that?” or “That’s not special!”

In such cases, you probably assume that everyone can do what was mentioned (as everyone can hold up their heads). Therefore, the skill seems unremarkable.

You notice such a skill, in fact, only when someone remarks upon it.

Why Don’t You Just….

The third way also depends on catching your own reactions, in this case to what others are NOT doing.

Have you ever noticed yourself saying or thinking a phrase that begins, “Why don’t you just…”? If so, whatever comes after the word “just” is likely to be a strength of yours.

When someone is ABLE to do something and doesn’t do it, after all, it requires explanation. Has the person forgotten the obvious? Is the person wilfully refusing? That’s why we ask, “Why don’t you just…?”

If the person is alert and means well, however, the discrepancy may be that you assume they are able, but they are not. This can happen when you assume everyone has an ability that you have.

Here are some simple examples (in ordinary life as well as in storytelling) where the person speaking has an unnoticed strength:

- “Why don’t you just calculate the bill in your head?” (Spoken by someone who finds such calculation easy and therefore assumes that others can do it, too.)
- “Why don’t you just put your keys away in the same place, every time you come home?” (Guess which person finds organization easier!)
- “Why don’t you just make this into a formula tale?” (Maybe the other teller doesn’t even know what a “formula tale” is, or doesn’t find it easy to transform a story from one genre to another.)
- “Why don’t you just add participation at that point?” Etc.

It’s Easier to Build With Bricks You Can See

Someone might ask, “Why does it matter to know your strengths? Isn’t the important thing to just use them?”

Of course no strength is valuable until it is used. But KNOWING your strengths brings some important advantanges.

When you become aware of your strengths, you become more aware of your options. You become more able to:

- Rely on those strengths;
- Preserve, nourish, and continue to develop those strengths;
- Choose engagements where those strengths will be most helpful; and
- Teach others those strengths.

Only when you know what you have, can you maximize your ability to use it – for your own good and for the good of others.

[Watch in future months for additional articles in this series.]

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