Nothing connects people together like stories.
And the ability to both tell and listen to stories is
an important part of health and wellness,
because it is the heart of communication. By Larry Schuster
Around the world friends and families connect in person and online… with stories. And nothing else connects better during a stressful period such as Covid fatigue and isolation and illness than a story.
Sharing and talking involves many words and thoughts, but the core of what is communicated is a story, something that is so engaging and so touches everyone’s heart that it leaves a deep impression. Stories can be repeated, retold, year after year. A story of joy, a story that inspires, a story that makes you warm and close always bears repetition. Often it’s a story of a challenging recovery or a hard-fought success.
Think about such universally cherished stories as Grandma’s advice to her grandkids, the special wisdom of older people passed down through the generations, a teacher who influences a student to care about their future, a boss, colleague or leader who addresses his staff in difficult time and inspires them with his or her words to turn things around.
No one is a born storyteller, but we all have within us the ability to tell a story, to communicate an idea, a principle, a lesson by describing a situation or a sequence of events that make points come alive. And that can change minds. Which is why storytelling is often called the ultimate tool for influence!
And there are certain qualities that make a big difference.
One quality that strong storytellers possess is motivation. They are highly motivated. “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you,” wrote Maya Angelou, writer and poet.
Meet Maria Shimura, who is such a lady. She lives in Tokyo and asked me to help her prepare for a TEDx speech at a venue near Osaka. All her life, she had been a shy person and had never thought about public speaking.
That changed three years ago, when her father died from illness. She had always seen her father as her savior, and now he was gone and she was so heartbroken. Every day when she was young, he came home from work and hugged her hard to squeeze out the nasty memories of the bullies who tormented her at school during the day.
He was a typical Japanese dad, but there was one difference. He had learned about hugging from three years of living in Brazil. Everybody hugged. When the family moved back to Japan, little Maria noticed that other parents didn’t hug their kids.
But the hugs her father gave her each day are what kept her alive during her stressful school life. And when he died, she felt he had given her a message to share with all of Japan. Why not hug? It may save someone’s life, as it had for her. With a strong clear message and vivid stories to back it up, she did it!
On December 18, she was one of a number of people who addressed the TEDx event and 80% of attendees said her a powerful support of hugging was the strongest speech for the whole event.
Motivation is so essential! Motivation based on what you care about, and on what the audience cares about. But motivation alone is not enough. Before your start your journey to becoming a storyteller and inspiring speaker, consider this question: Why are some people gifted at storytelling?
Why is it that some people around you can tell a story that keeps you engaged — on the edge of your seat — from their very first words? That means you really want to know what happens next! But then there are other people, to be blunt, who are so awful at story-telling that you are looking at your phone soon after they they start talking.
There is no single reason for this. It can be related to flat delivery, sentences that are too long, or the wrong topic for the wrong audience.
Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of a number of books including “The Tipping Point,” wondered about this when he was a young boy.
He compared how his father told stories to how other people did it, and he applied the lessons he learned from this comparison to become one of the most successful authors of non-fiction books ever.
First thing to know: He did NOT get his storytelling talent from his father. No! He said his father was a TERRIBLE, no-good storyteller!
The big difference between dad and the great storytellers? The great ones started with a mystery, and his father didn’t. All movies, novels and plays use mystery in some way to capture and hold attention.
This concept of mystery is so captivating, that a university science professor started adding it at the beginning of his lectures. He’d start with a big question posed in a way that made the kids really want to know the answer. Suddenly he noticed that all the kids stayed focused until the end of the lecture… because they wanted to learn the solution to the mystery. And that also solved the problem of the kids leaving early.
It’s the art of knowing what details to hold back and when to sprinkle them in as your story unfolds. The story artist takes you on a journey that reveals — bit by bit — things you never expected.
For the audience, — the reader or listener — part of the excitement of the story is not getting the answer as soon as possible, but enjoying the way in which it is revealed. In a strange way, there is a pleasure in gradually peeling back layers of the unknown, until you know. Of course, for this special experience, the storyteller and audience have an unspoken agreement. The timing and mood of the storytelling moment must be just right.
So great storytellers are highly motivated, know how to communicate a sense of mystery, and also know how to spot a good story.
The essence is of a story is this: Something happened, and then something else as a result. And that series of moments — something unexpected, magical or just different — creates an emotion. And this sequence of events happened at a specific time and place. And usually there is one main character.
Often it’s about a desire to achieve or strive for some result. Perhaps about a relationship, professional achievement, better physical or financial health or new self-esteem.
Two test questions to help you work out if you are on the right track?:
1) Is the event or moment related in the story unforgettable?
2) Is there an audience (even an audience of one) who will care about the story?
In the case of the highly successful 2012 TED Talk “We need to talk about an injustice” by Bryan Stevenson, he began his speech with a story about advice his grandma gave him when he was a young boy. She asked him to promise, “Bryan, Always do the right thing, even when the right thing is the hard thing.”
He said, “I remember this just like it happened yesterday.”
The speech was about how that advice shaped him decades later. And that led to more stories, until 65% of his 21-minute speech was filled with stories. And it was the stories which made his talk on criminal justice reform accessible to a general audience, The result was a huge standing ovation, and the audience donated US$1 million to his criminal justice reform efforts.
Grandma advice stories and how a dad helped his daughter at a difficult time… these are not extraordinary events. And that’s the point. The speaker’s job is to transform those ordinary moments into extraordinary experiences for the listener.
When you use these ordinary moments correctly, it connects you to the audience. Because they have all had similar experiences. The common experience and knowledge serves as a bridge to the destination you will take them to. Start with the familiar and take them to something new.