Five ways to tell a better story

Open book

Telling a story to captivate your audience is not easy. It doesn’t matter whether the story is about the strange man sitting next to you on the plane, the frustration you had at the bank or … writing a book. 

I want to break it down even more. It’s more than just telling an interesting story. It is about effective communication. I strongly believe that I am responsible for the effect of my communication. In other words, if you misunderstood me, it is my fault, not yours. I wasn’t clear in the message I was trying to bring across, therefore your misunderstanding or complete lack of comprehension. In writing a book this is a particular challenge for me. I know exactly what is happening in the story, in each of my characters’ heads, well, I know everything. Now I have to share that information in an informative, yet entertaining manner with my readers.

The challenge lies in over-sharing or under-sharing. Did I explain too much and now the readers think I’m insulting their intelligence? Did I under-explain and now my readers are not quite clear on what is happening and they’re feeling frustrated, because I’m treating them badly. Quite a challenge, I tell you. Well, I apply certain principles to all of my communication. It doesn’t matter whether I’m talking to a friend, a waiter in a foreign country or writing a book. I try to always keep these principles in mind:

(1) Know my audience. My best friend? I never censor what I say, because she knows what lies behind every sentence. My not-so-close friends? I know them well enough to take their education, background, interests and modes of communication into consideration. The waiter in a small Italian village? His English knowledge is most likely limited to the menu (and computers!), so that is what I stick to (the menu, not the computers).

(2) Adjust my language. I’ve travelled a lot and lived in a few countries where English was not spoken everywhere, at least not with perfect comprehension. So I adjust. When speaking to the Italian waiter, I stick to sentences with straightforward words, no fabulous vocabulary or euphemisms, and most definitely no huge arm gestures (it’s embarrassing when you knock over the wine glass!). Speaking to my educated (and sometimes snobbish) friends, I can pull out my impressive vocabulary and show off. Usually I don’t, simply because it’s not me. Speaking to a few of my mother’s friends, I adjust my language slightly to fit better and to relate to that generation.

(3) Find the simplest way. That is usually the most straightforward way going from event 1, to event 2, to event 3. I have a friend who sometimes tells me about something that had happened in his day. After 5 minutes I’m usually completely lost! I don’t know who was where when what happened. It’s hugely frustrating and usually takes much longer for him to tell his story, because he has to explain himself all the time.

(4) Keep it moving. This is especially important in writing a book. I try reallyreallyreallyreally hard to keep the story moving so that I don’t bore the reader. When you tell your story and you see the non-verbal cues of people around you indicating boredom, it’s time to move your story forward. I’m completely guilty of making my friends suffer through, “So, on Tuesday… no, wait. Was it Wednesday? No, no. It was Tuesday. Or maybe it was Thursday. Hmm… Nope. It was Wednesday.” Yes, I’m indeed one of those people. Fortunately (for my friends), I often catch myself, roll my eyes and tell them the specific day is so not important or essential to the story. And then I blush a little.

(5) Listen. We don’t do this enough. I think that you have not mastered the art of communication, until you’ve mastered the art of listening. There have been only a handful of times that my story really was more important than what the other person wanted to share.  And by listening, I learn a lot, even if it is how not to destroy a computer by spilling coffee all over it.

None of these are easy. I started paying attention to these points 20 years ago, and I still find myself stepping outside of these. I want to add an extra principle, but it’s rather a life principle: Stay true to who you are. Just because someone else can use humour/sarcasm/intellectual snobbism/funny accents, doesn’t mean that you should attempt that. It will come across as insincere and spoil the delivery.


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