You often wonder how some people can land a job anytime they need to and others struggle to get just a job interview. Then you watch TED talks and listen to motivational speakers tell you things you somehow already knew but they convince you that you need to improve somehow. After that you start working on yourself and you find that some things get better but other areas just languish. So how do startup CEO’s and TED talk speakers keep their dreams going when, for so many others, life slows them down? Easy, they know how to communicate in a way that gets other people moving.
A Skill to match all others
It always surprises me when people say that I watch too many movies and TV shows. I usually tell people about the latest movie I saw and can describe it in detail at some points but I know to leave out the good parts otherwise I ruin the whole movie for them. I try to add in humor, a side note here and there, and sometimes I’ll make people struggle for the meaning before I have to give it away (I try not to most of the time). Most of the time though I like to give out the pieces and see if people can put together, on their own, to find out what it is I’m saying. The look on their face gives them more joy, when they figure it out before everyone else, but it also brings me joy because I made them work to find the meaning of what it is I’m talking about. When someone has to give you the answer to something you don’t learn anything. It’s the process of learning that makes learning important, not the answer.
Storytelling is a skill most people think is only for bedtime stories or presentations. The truth is it is how you get people’s attention for anything. Our minds are wired to hear stories because it is the one skill that has been around for thousands of years. Before all other skills came about, someone must tell you the why and the how before you try it for yourself. This is why I put so much value into movies and TV shows, after being told growing up that that stuff will turn your brain to mush, which is far from the truth, because the whole point of all that watching is to listen to a story being told. The entertainment industry is built on this one art form – storytelling. The better the story, the more people will listen.
The Value of Descriptive Speech
Being able to create an image out of words is a powerful skill. You need an imagination to see the details of what it is you, the speaker, are seeing in order to convey that to your audience. One of the master writers, aside from Shakespeare, was J.R.R. Tolkien. He would take his time describing the wonders of just a tree to make sure the reader saw exactly what he wanted them to see and within that description he put emotion into the way the reader should feel about that tree.
This same action is the way motivational speakers talk, they pull their audience with them in order to get them into a certain frame of mind. Once the audience is in that frame of mind that is when they can show them what the speaker has been hiding. The same goes for when you try to sell something. Joan Rivers was a genius at selling because she used humor and storytelling to bring the person into the idea of owning what she was selling. If you look at all comedians and their stand-up acts, it is all about telling a long story with short punch lines thrown in.
A movie or TV show is the same thing, the audience watches to find out what they will learn by watching-in on this situation unfolding before them. A script is the foundation to anything hollywood, then the director and actors bring it to life. This means the script needs to be clear in order for the audience members to pick up on. A script starts from what the writer puts down on paper. A writer must have the whole story laid out in their mind before they can start writing, or as some writer’s have said, they use the “what-if” approach when writing to find out what characters would do “if” presented with new circumstances.
If you were given a blank sheet of paper, could you come up with a basic scene for two actors to perform? And would it be entertaining enough for people to pay to come and watch it?
Why Storytelling Matters
I have met many people who have no storytelling skills whatsoever so why should it matter if one learns this skill or not, won’t they still be successful? Yes and no, but more on the no side. Why is George Clooney so popular in hollywood? The reason why a regular guy doing commercials and TV spots in famous 80’s TV shows rose to the top of the entertainment industry is because he is a great storyteller and jokester. He loves to play pranks on people and leave them with these amazing stories. People relate better to people they can understand and enjoy being around so if someone can make you laugh in an industry where 12 hour days is considered normal then you want to make sure you are surrounded by people who you enjoy being around.
Robbin Williams was known for keeping the crew alive during late night shoots when everyone was tired. He would rift and put on these short little shows to keep people’s spirits high. The high energy Robin had translated well because of his talent to inhabit any kind of character and speak through their dialect. The more imaginative the story, the more people remember it.
Shia Labeouf who started out as a kid who would call agents pretending to be these characters over the phone. When the agents got annoyed at this they wanted to know who was really on the other end of the phone and he said he would tell them if they gave him an interview. The next day he showed up and there was this kid and he audition for him and signed himself an agent. He was a person who knew the importance of humor and comedy in getting people’s attention. Shia also knew the importance of storytelling so he would learn how to tell great stories and get people’s attention so when he is on set and sitting around it is easy for him to get an audience going because he knows how to talk so people will pay attention.
If you ask any HR manager who they are likely to remember more in an interview 9 times out of 10 they will tell you it was the person who made them feel comfortable in the room talking to them. It was the person who took everything in their resume and turned it into a memorable story to tell. Explaining to the hiring manager that your love for building started when you won a Lego competition, which also happened to be the place where you met a master builder for Lego is more memorable than the guy who got a perfect GPA in college because they studied hard. Who do you think has more passion in their life and is more interesting to be around?
The reason why more business schools are teaching the art of storytelling is because all entrepreneurs have to perfect their pitch in order to find investors. That pitch is centered on the art of storytelling. All investors want to know how they got their idea and if they hear something like, “I saw students want an app that helps them with studying so I created this app,” chances are they are not interested but if they hear a pitch like this, “One day I was in office hours with some students and I overheard a few classmates asking if there was a better way to share notes, pictures, and review sheets. I didn’t have an answer at the time but I looked around. I saw there were a few options but none that met the needs of how students interact with class material. Then during one of the study sessions I saw a student using a personal app and I partnered with him on how to improve it and that is how we came up with said app.” This story is more interesting because it tells investors more about the habits and personalities of the people they might invest in.
Storytelling is not just about the story, but the act of telling the story should also tell the audience members more about the person telling the story. That is not an easy act if communication is not your strong point so getting a lot of practice in is very important. There are many consultants and firms that started up with the sole purpose of helping others communicate better. Storytelling programs like these for entrepreneurs are becoming very popular.
If you had an audience placed in front of you, could you hold their attention longer than 5 minutes with an interesting story?
Training to Become a Storyteller
CEO’s who are successful are natural storytellers. If you watch an interview with any of the great CEOs of our time you will notice that they have a knack for telling stories about their business. Any budding CEO will learn quickly that if they want to sell their idea to someone they need a story that people will take their time to listen to.
Brian Chesky’s story of how Airbnb got started is one he has told a million times already but it is interesting, and memorable, every single time he tells it. Brian is not an extroverted kind of guy but his passion for his idea shines through when asked to talk about what he does. That passion, that imagination, is translated into a story from how his company got started to where he wants to go. Storytelling is an art form that requires hours and hours of practice and with the number of times he has had to sell his idea, he has basically taught himself how to become a great storyteller.
Regardless of your personality type learning how to tell a story from scratch is an important skill. Shows like “Whose Line is it anyways?” teaches you how trained actors take random ideas and turn them into a performance. New Episodes comes on the CW network every friday night from 7 to 8 pm. But anyone can do improv, a style of acting where random actors come together in random skits and perform as they go along with the scene. There are no lines to learn, no direction from anyone (except their own imagination) and the only rule to follow is total acceptance of whatever anyone throws at you.
There are many places in Austin that offer Improv classes. Each theater offers free improv classes to help you determine if it is something you are interested in. Be sure to ask. Also if you have never been to any of these theaters go check out a free show. Their hilarious.
The New Movement Theater
The Hideout Theater
The Institution Theater
UT Improv Group
Improv for Kids and Teens
Austin Improv Website
Creative Writing courses are also great to learn the act of storytelling. This is also a great way to start off if getting in front of people is too scary at first. Just remember though you will need to work up to the level of being able to get up in front of people and speak. Creative writing helps you get the juices flowing by learning to come up with a story through a prompt. For example, some classes start off with a five minute writing exercise where a picture is put up and the class has to write a story on anything that has happened before that picture or after or during. They have to fill a page of writing before moving on to the next activity in class.
Public Speaking is a also a great way to learn how to tell a story through the act of speaking to people on different subjects. There are many organizations that encourage the habit of speaking in public so joining one is a great way to get started. The format for most of the classes starts out with everyone pulling a random topic from a hat and participants have five minutes to prepare their impromptu speech. Then each person is randomly picked to go up and speak. Most of the speeches are persuasive but for individuals not ready for that level they can perform an informative speech.
There are many public speaking groups to join so be sure to take your time to find the right group for you. They are very much worth your time.
Lake Travis Toastmasters
Austin Toastmasters Club
Capital City Toastmasters
You can also go and watch Local TED talk speakers at the Austin location. If you feel this is something you would like to work towards in achieving you can always submit an application to see if they will let you speak, or have others nominate you to speak. It’s important to have a goal in mind when working on a skill like storytelling, so this is a good place to start.
The next best place to start is at your local library and look for books on the art of storytelling and the art of public speaking. There are plenty of books on creative writing as well.
Here are some good ones to start off with
The Art of Public Speaking: Lessons from the Greatest Speeches in History
The Art of Storytelling: From Parents to Professionals
The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking
How to Develop Self-Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking
Public Speaking for Success
If, after your training, you feel this is a skill you want to turn into a profession then this is a good book to start off reading to see if you are ready to become a professional public speaker.
Speaking for a Living: An Insider’s Guide to Building a Professional Speaking Career
The Structure of a Good Story
Everyone learns in school the basic structure of a good story.
Act 1 – Scene Setting and Characters
Act 2 – Introduce Problem
Act 3 – Conflict and Tension
Act 4 – Resolution or Falling Action
Act 5 – Closure
This basic structure is what has created some of the best novels, movies, plays, and presentations in the world. It takes creativity to take this basic form and turn it into something great. Many have taken this form and twisted it into something else, like when the film Pulp Fiction first came out it rearranged the structure of a story and made people piece the parts together to figure out what was going on.
In order to take this and turn it into a great public speech you have to find a story to introduce the audience to in order to get their attention. The challenge with this is that once your audience can see you working off of a formula they start to lose interest. You have to keep it interesting so it is up to you to make it interesting by structuring your presentation like a story. Books like Talk like TED help you see what makes people listen to you and how some of the best presentations ever told went viral.
If one of your resolutions this year is to find a job or get a promotion then you might want to think about improving your communication skills first. Everyone likes being around people that tell stories so why not improve the one skill that is the very foundation that brings people together?