Do you want to write a compelling memoir?
How can you use storytelling techniques in an obituary?
Wish you could share your life story with children and grandchildren?
The History of Storytelling
Storytelling has become an intrinsic part of our society, and it has enveloped our daily lives. From telling someone what just happened to posting personal experiences on social media, we want to invite others into our lives, share the important (and the mundane), and peer in on the lives of our friends and family as well. But when did the art of storytelling start?
These modern methods of storytelling are new when compared to the breadth of history behind this human behavior. We can certainly imagine—thousands of years ago—the early beginnings of story telling beginning in a cave with primitive language and cave drawings. And before the written word came to form, human beings had a rich history of oral storytelling. Since our earliest ancestors could communicate, they found the need to provide explanations for the unexplainable.
- Natural disasters
- Great storms
- Thunder and lightning
- Volcanic eruptions
- Tidal waves
- Celestial events
- And more
And any good orator could command the attention—and emotions—of their target audience. Ancient priests, kings, judges, and seers were able to retell stories of failure, victory, difficulties, and adventures. Storytellers won the respect of the people, and their stories traveled far and wide to other lands.
“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”
― Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
Stories became epic tales of adventure and success passed down from one generation to the next or the means to convey good morals and behavior to others. There was almost no end to the variety of tales that were spun by those who were both good listeners and speakers.
- Fairy Tales
- Trickster stories
- Epic adventures
- Ghost stories
- Heroic stories
- And much more!
The most common types of storytelling include those of voyage and return, rags to riches, a quest or adventure, a comedy, romance, overcoming a monster or obstacle, tragedy, and rebirth. Perhaps the oldest surviving story is the epic, Gilgamesh, recalling the deeds of a famous Sumerian king. And the earliest known record of storytellers can be found in Egypt, when the sons of Cheops entertained their father with their tales.
Why Storytelling Is Important
When we hear a good, memorable, personal story that is both simple and uncomplicated, we are prompted to do one of three things: retell the story, be inspired, and take action. And listeners may respond in all three ways.
Storytelling activates our brains in a way that nothing else does. Whether you enjoy diving into an amazing novel, sitting down with a bucket of popcorn to watch the latest thriller or intently listen to the retelling of your friend’s crazy day, different parts of the brain begin firing up: language processing and sensory receptors for taste, sound, sight, touch, smell, motion, and emotion. The person telling the story and the person listening to the story both synchronize in thoughts and emotion—even if their reactions or points of view differ.
“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
― Leo Tolstoy
The truth is that evolution has wired our brains to respond to stories. Storytelling helps us connect the past to the present and helps us to connect to one another, perhaps because we all share in the human experience. In fact, we’re making up stories in our heads all day. We explain to ourselves why something happened the way it did. We justify our actions to ourselves and to others. We get ready to tell someone else a personal story, so we get the details straight in our heads first.
And when we hear a story, we want to find a way to relate to it. An emotional story can evoke pain, sadness, loneliness, frustration, disgust, defeat or failure or arouse feelings of elation, happiness, love, joy, celebration, success, awe, excitement or adventure. Our brains are ready to process the story and relate it to our individual experience and emotions.
How Storytelling Helps Us Remember
Undoubtedly, you’ve stood in front of a person who spouted off a trail of facts. Your brain glazed over, uninterested… nothing to grab your attention. But then, behind your shoulder, you heard someone telling a story. Feeling compelled, you turned toward the storyteller to pick up the rest of the tale. Had the first person opened with a story, your brain would have been more open to absorbing a few facts. The second person got it right: start with the story, then end with the result (what you want to happen).
People take time for stories—even when we’re busy. We find stories to be motivating, interesting, and relatable. A good story helps us to care, make decisions, and get involved. Utilizing the art of telling a story helps to build community, connects likeminded people, and can also create a bond between the unlikeliest of friends.
“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
What people remember most from stories is how a story made them feel. Perhaps stories help us to connect to our childhoods: a time when imagination and creativity existed in abundance. Or perhaps a story of difficulty carried reminders of previous challenges.
For centuries, people have used the power of storytelling to pass on knowledge or a legacy. Philosophers told tales in order to present new ideas in a different manner. And this same idea is carried forward today into schools and classrooms around the globe to outreach programs and corporate advertising. Tell a story, and people are likely to connect and ultimately buy in. It’s not that we are suckers just willing to fall for any story that we’re fed. Truly, we are people yearning for connection. And a good story always helps to accomplish that goal.
Stories are a great way to remember our lost loved ones, through an obituary, a eulogy or other written or verbal form. Every person in their human existence has lived an amazing adventure of a life, filled with ups and downs, comedy and tragedy, failure and success. No matter what country someone lives in, their upbringing, their income level, parenting, education, religion, work experience or more, they will have experienced these same turning points in life—each in a different way. And with each experience comes a story of learning, loving, overcoming, and becoming. Each of these experiences provide value to others: family, friends, and strangers.
The Elements of Good Storytelling
Stephen King once said that stories engage in telepathy with the reader. A good story teller will provide the ingredients in a narrative, and the reader builds the world in their minds as they experience the story word for word.
“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”
― Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings
Every great story contains the following five storytelling techniques.
- Simplicity: Good stories are easy to understand. A good storyteller will speak to their audience on their level, so that the audience spends time absorbing and connecting to the story rather than getting wrapped up in decoding language or facts.
- Emotion: The most compelling stories are tales of humor, pain or joy. And quite often, all three emotions (or more) are used throughout the book. Wrap them all up together, and you are sure to have a narrative worth remembering and retelling.
- Truth: All good tales require honesty. The author needs to be consistently honest with themselves about the truth of a story, and they need to be honest with their audience. Lie to a reader and you’ll lose their confidence and their trust. That’s not to say that an author can’t create fictional worlds with made-up circumstances. Writers do so all the time with great success.
- Reality: Even in the most far-fetched stories, the storyteller needs to include a dose of reality… something that actually happened… something that the reader or audience can identify with.
- Validity: Finally, all stories, in order to be successful, need a target audience—whether it’s an audience of one or one million. The fact that even one person is interested in listening gives the narrative validity.
Do You Have a Compelling Story?
With stories being told from the beginning of time, how do you know that your story is compelling or worth reading? There may not be an easy answer, but just like the elements of good story telling, compelling stories all have similar ingredients as well.
- Interest: Who is your audience and are they interested in the story? The audience may just be your immediate family members. Or perhaps, your audience is a particular community, people within a certain profession or a targeted age group. All of these groups are made up of unique individuals who all share a commonality. It is these common experiences or thoughts that will create interest in a topic.
- Originality: Does the story introduce a new idea or a different perspective. Perhaps the story is told in a new way. Either way, the storyteller needs to keep the audience and its needs in mind when creating the story.
- Awareness: What is the ‘Aha!” moment in your story? What is the thing that happens that the person you are writing about finally learns something new or comes to a new understanding of a matter?
- Transformation: The character (or person you are telling a story about), the author (you), and the audience (your readers, family, friends, etc.) all need to move through the same experience together—and be transformed, or changed, as a result. You don’t all need to be changed in the same way because everyone experiences a story differently and applies it to their own unique life experiences in a different way. However, change must occur in order to come out the other side with an awakening.
“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
― Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
How to Become a Good Storyteller
Think you have the makings of being a good storyteller? Or perhaps you are doubting yourself and want to learn. The truth is that we all have a storyteller living within us. We tell stories every day… to anyone who will listen. And when there’s no one around, we’ll tell a story to ourselves. It’s innate. It’s part of our human nature.
Here are a few storytelling skills to keep in mind to deliver an engaging story and when using storytelling techniques.
- Focus: Stay focused on the main story. Don’t get lost in communication with tangents and sub-stories. Your reader or listener will stay interested and engaged when they are focusing on one story.
- Good endings: Make sure your story has a great ending: a takeaway, a lesson, a thought or other meaningful idea. A powerful story has to begin well, and it has to end well. (And don’t forget that the in between parts need to be good in order to maintain interest.) Don’t make the reader or listener pay attention to entire story without a payoff. If there is no payoff for the audience, then all you’ve done is create a big “lie” and wasted their time and emotions.
- Brevity: Keep it short. Don’t make your story so long that your reader or listener forgets what the story was about in the first place. Remove any unnecessary facts and keep to what matters most.
- Respect: Be considerate of everyone in your story. Don’t reveal facts or opinions that someone wouldn’t want others to know. You want to create an interesting story that doesn’t hurt or embarrass others or cause an awkward situation.
“Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.”
― Michael Shermer