As of Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Some people are born storytellers. Other people struggle to hold your attention.
The difference between a boring story and an interesting one usually boils down to three things: emotions, embellishment and authenticity.
Boring stories go in a linear fashion. Poor storytellers repeat every fact and detail with no particular emphasis on one element or the other. They tend to focus on getting every single inane detail exactly right.
Perhaps you’ve been treated to some version of, “And then we went to lunch. Oh no, wait, we went to the grocery store first, yes that’s right, it was the grocery store then lunch, and then we went to Aunt Hilda’s.”
The “one boring fact after another” technique is a favorite of literalists, who typically tell, less than stellar stories.
Great storytellers, on the other hand, provide interpretation. They help you understand what the story means by drawing your attention to the most interesting parts, which sometimes requires a bit of exaggeration.
Mark Twain once said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
In my family, we not only tell stories, we embellish them.
For example, one of our favorite family stories is that my great-grandmother marched with Susan B. Anthony for the women’s right to vote. Do we have hard evidence of this event? Not a shred of it.
The only facts we know for sure are: she had a reputation for being outspoken and bossy, she was married three times, and she lived in the right area. The rest is family legend.
For us, the story is real. I purposely decided that I wasn’t going to investigate it any deeper because I like believing it.
If Susan B. Anthony and my great-grandmother are watching from above, as I tell the story to my daughters, they’re either saying, “Wow, isn’t it great that they still talk about us?”
Or Susan B. is saying to my great-gran, “You and I both know you weren’t there, but look how proud it makes them feel. Let’s just let them keep believing it.”
Literalists will no doubt feel differently, but for me, the litmus test of a good story is the feeling and actions it inspires.
It’s not without coincidence that all the major religions have a book of stories. Stories are how we communicate our culture and our beliefs. They tell us who we are and paint a picture of who we want to be.
Family stories cast the emotional DNA for the next generation. Organizational stories create a narrative for the entire company.
When it comes to storytelling, nuance and judgment matter. If the boss tells a story about a customer saying you’re the best company ever, it’s not critical that you compile a fact based competitive analysis. And if you over exaggerate about how the customer swooned, you won’t be fined by the fact police. But if the same boss exaggerates invoices, it crosses the line into lying. Most grown-ups are smart enough to know the difference.
Great stories are fabric of our culture. They inspire noble actions because they’re a spell-binding blend of real emotion and imaginative embellishment that strikes a chord of authenticity with both the teller and the listener.
The next time you want to make a point, consider using a story. And if you need some extra exaggeration, to make it more interesting, you can borrow some from my family.
‑ Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of several books, and has appeared on such television shows as “The Today Show” (www.LisaEarleMcLeod.com).