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Mind Body and Soul: Once Upon a Time

The Art of Telling Interesting Stories

By Michelle Vessel

You’re laughing it up at a cocktail party with a group of old friends and new acquaintances. Suddenly, there’s a lull in the conversation, and you decide to launch into a hilarious anecdote about something that happened to you a few days ago. You backtrack to provide some context for your story, and before you know it, you’ve veered wildly off-track and begin to blank on the details of what it was you wanted to say in the first place. As you stutter and stall, eyes are glazing over, snarky looks are being exchanged, and you even catch a glimpse of a muffled yawn or two. Before long, a few ladies excuse themselves to freshen their drinks. Within seconds, the others have followed suit, leaving you alone and feeling like a social reject that doesn’t deserve to have friends.

Don’t take it personally. You simply suffer from an all-too-common affliction; you’re just not a naturally gifted storyteller. Although some people seemingly tell great stories from the time they can speak, communication experts say that crafting a great tale is actually a learned set of skills that, when practiced and perfected over time, will come in handy much more often than you might expect. By harnessing the age-old power of storytelling, you can get a leg up in situations ranging from getting the word out about your new business to breaking the ice on an awkward first date.

Touting the Telling

If you think about it, virtually every type of communication we engage in can be improved just by adding a touch of storytelling flair. When it comes to trying to land a new job, career coaches advise jobseekers to distill their qualifications and professional experience into a 30-second “elevator pitch” that can be unleashed at a moment’s notice. Child development experts cite storytelling as a great way to impart life lessons and to illustrate the reasoning behind household rules. Last but not least, having a firm grasp on the basics of good storytelling can make parties and social gatherings a whole lot easier and more enjoyable, especially for those shy and retiring types who tend to feel anxious when they find themselves in the spotlight.

A Well-Tuned Tale

Telling better stories doesn’t just happen by accident. Focus first on learning how to recognize the ingredients that make for a ripping good yarn.

• A beginning, a middle and an end. Perhaps the single most important part of identifying a good story and telling it well is figuring out how the plot should be structured. Don’t provide too much history or context, and finish with a bang to avoid rambling on and diluting the impact of your story.

• Dramatic impact that fits with the audience. Figure out who your audience is and tailor the message to engage their interest. The story elements you emphasize when speaking at a cocktail party are likely to be totally different than those for a roomful of grade-school kids.

• A fast-paced plot. Once you get things rolling, try to retain a consistent momentum. Nothing makes an audience’s attention wane more quickly than an unevenly paced story.

• Vary Voice Inflection. A monotone voice is an interest killer. Vary the speed, volume and intonation of your voice to create interest. If inclined, impersonate other voices to garner affect and emphasize character traits.

• Just enough vivid detail. To ensure that your story will really come alive in the telling, elaborate on little details that do a lot of narrative heavy lifting. A one-sentence description packed full of sensory details can really bring a character to life without dragging down the pace of the story.

• A clearly defined theme or point. Long-winded stories that never get to the point are grueling. Convey events that happened, but also why they matter in the story. This will help your audience to care about the outcome.

Fact or Fiction

Keeping these elements in mind, it’s important to develop your own storytelling code of ethics. Although most of us know that some of the anecdotes told at cocktail parties and backyard barbecues are likely to be a bit exaggerated for effect, professional storytellers advise saving tall tales and outright fiction for venues in which the audience is open to an element of imagination. Fabricating details when spectators are expecting at least partial truth may cause you to lose credibility. If your story is fantasy-based, make sure you convey that fact by describing it as a “fable” or a “fairy tale.”

Still, when your story is mostly true, that doesn’t mean you have to provide a police report-like accounting of names, dates and details. The true art of effective storytelling comes with knowing when and how to emphasize some aspects of your tale and downplay or gloss over others.

Practice Makes Perfect

Now that you understand more about what makes a story effective, it’s time to put what you’ve learned into practice. Opportunities to burnish your new skills are all around you, both in the community and at home.

• Storytelling Festivals: Check out the events calendar at Clark County Libraries (www.lvccld.org), Henderson Libraries (www.mypubliclibrary.com), or call the NV Storytelling Guild (478-7704) for local events and make one of them the focus of a family day trip.

• Toastmasters Meetings: Dedicated to the art of storytelling and effective communication, Toastmasters focuses specifically on helping its members become better public speakers. Check the newspaper or the Toastmasters website (www.toastmasters.org) for a meeting time near you.

• Kids’ Story Times: If the thought of telling a story in front of grown-ups sends chills down your spine, use your own kids and their friends as storytelling guinea pigs. There are few critics who are harsher or more ruthlessly honest than a room full of easily distractible youngsters.

• Volunteer: Once you’re feeling bold enough to take your act on the road, why not volunteer your storytelling services? Children’s hospitals, assisted living facilities, senior centers, organizations that work with developmentally disabled individuals–these are all great venues in which to try out new stories and give back to the community at the same time.

• Story Potluck: When you get right down to it, stories are an important part of what makes us human. Celebrate the ancient tradition of storytelling with a story-themed potluck dinner. Ask everyone to bring a covered dish and their favorite family legend, reminiscence, ghost story, or tall tale.

Although storytelling is an age-old part of our culture, it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. But with just a little practice and attention to detail, you can hone your storytelling ability, get your point across, connect meaningfully with others, and effortlessly reel off a few hilarious and perfectly timed anecdotes at next month’s cocktail party.

Boost Your Budding Skills

Whether you prefer an online course, how-to books or other fun teaching aids, there’s help out there for every aspiring storyteller.

• Sign up for an online class or personal coaching from storyteller Doug Lipman at www.storydynamics.com. The site also offers a treasure trove of storytelling tools and resources, with kits and story-of-the-month club memberships starting at $5.

• Margaret MacDonald’s highly acclaimed Storyteller”s Start-Up Book is an absolute beginner’s guide to the fine art of storytelling, available at Amazon.com and your local library.

• The popular public radio show This American Life features a loosely themed group of gripping personal stories Sundays at 1 p.m. and Saturdays at 9 & 11 p.m. on KNPR-FM2 88.9. You can also get some storytelling technique tips from the show’s creator and host, Ira Glass, online at www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/15255.

• Practice family storytelling with the Once Upon a Time card game. These game cards provide lots of interesting storytelling prompts for players of all ages. Available at Amazon.com and select specialty retailers.

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