Storytelling: Mastering a Powerful Career Skill in 3 Steps

Even public speaking is all about how to tell a story

There’s a reason we all want to know how to tell a story.

Before I can tell you that reason, I need to talk about the hierarchy of skill specializations.

Some skills are highly specialized. They only matter for a very specific type of task. I can drive a tractor, but that has never been helpful in my career.

Then there are more general skills. I can read and write technical documents, and that skill has been useful nearly everywhere I’ve gone.

But there’s a third category. These are the universal skills. These skills are so general that you’d have to go out of your way to find a career in which you wouldn’t use them. This category is where we find storytelling.

I tried to come up with a scenario in which storytelling wasn’t helpful. I was watching an episode of Jeopardy in which one of the contestants worked in a fire lookout tower. Those people are all alone during their entire workday.

How could storytelling possibly be useful for a fire lookout?

Well, they still need to get hired, right? They are going to have interviews for those jobs, and I’m betting that at least one question in those interviews will include the words “tell me about a time when you…” That’s a story!

If you have a job in which storytelling cannot possibly be a useful skill, please let me know. Whatever that job is, I bet it makes for quite the story.

But if you don’t have that job, it’s okay. It’s never too late to enhance your storytelling skills. And I’m here with a few easy tricks to get you there.

Know The Takeaway

Some people tell stories just for the attention. They have no message to convey, and it shows in the clarity and cohesion of their tale. These people are terrible and should be punished by being forced to listen to recordings of their own stories for all of eternity while eating nothing but stale popcorn and drinking nothing but flat soda.

Every story has an intention. Sometimes they are meant to convince. Other times, they exist to inspire. Sometimes they only need to convey information. These are all great reasons to tell a story. Just make sure you have a reason.

Try fitting your takeaway into one of these forms.

I want my listeners to…

  • remember ____.
  • feel ____ about ____.
  • be inspired to ____.
  • be convinced that ____.

Now keep that sentence in mind as you put together the story. You learned this back in grade school with essays. The only difference is they called it a thesis statement.

Some of you are probably telling me that there is one category of stories that I’m missing: stories that are made to entertain. I do have those covered, but I didn’t use that exact word. Entertainment is about feeling. If you want to entertain someone, you want them to feel happiness, excitement, or some other emotion. Entertainment is right there in my second bullet.

I should mention that there is one thing worse than a story without a point. That is a story where the point was artificially tacked on. Don’t try to get away with it. Stories with artificial takeaways are as obvious as backronyms.

(In case you aren’t familiar with backronyms, try this one on for size. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just happy coincidence that those words spelled out USA PATRIOT ACT)

Stop Giving So Much Background

I was listening to a fellow data scientist give a talk about his work once. He was about 5 slides in, and I was very confused. It’s not that I couldn’t follow his talk. Each scene and every plot point made perfect sense, but he was telling the wrong story.

He was telling of a method that he had spent months painstakingly perfecting, and it was an impressive tale of hard work and perseverance. However — as I knew from previous discussions with him — this wasn’t the method he ended up using. The method he was talking about hadn’t worked, so he had replaced it with something better.

The audience was about to realize that every note they’d taken so far was for the prequel. The real story didn’t start until three slides before the end of the talk.

Here’s where he was coming from. The final method he used took him less than a week to complete. The old method had taken at least eight times that long. So he naturally gave the old method eight times the focus in his talk.

But the old method didn’t matter to the audience. They were there to hear about what had worked. Every layer of detail in your story needs to have a purpose. As far as I could tell, his purpose for talking about the old method was simply to justify 2+ months of his existence.

The simplest way to avoid giving too much background is to remember your takeaway. Each piece of information should somehow enhance the likelihood that they will remember, feel, or believe the takeaway. Anything that doesn’t have that effect is a waste.

For those screaming “George R. R. Martin does it, so why can’t I?”, I do want to address that point. Think about the detail that Martin, Tolkien, and other such writers put into their stories. Is there a point to it?

The answer is yes.

They are trying to get you to care about a world that you have no experience with. Why should I care that Ned Stark is dead? Martin wanted us to feel something when that happened. The extensive background in his story was meant to get you so invested that Stark’s death felt like losing a friend.

The stories you are telling are not about a world that people are wholly unfamiliar with. The amount of detail you need to draw your listeners in is dependent on how far away they started.

Stories of White Walkers take quite a bit of background. Stories of farm life told in a city might take some background but not as much. The story of the ham sandwich you ate yesterday probably requires little if any backstory.

Use Anecdotes, Dialogue, and Figures of Speech

Never assume your listeners will immediately understand the importance of any fact or figure that you tout. Certainly don’t assume that they will feel it the way that you do.

Facts are rarely memorable, and they certainly aren’t enough to inspire or evoke emotions.

If you want to engage your listener — and I hope that you do — you need to go beyond the simple numerical results. Here are a few easy ways to do that.

  • Anecdotes — Sea levels are rising at a rate of 3mm per year. Enthralled yet? Didn’t think so. But you might be more interested if I told you that these rising sea levels are a primary cause for Indonesia’s 2019 announcement that they would be moving Jakarta — their capital city of over 10 million people!
  • Dialogue — Does your story involve a discussion you had with a colleague? Don’t just tell me that your entire outlook was changed by that conversation – put me in the story with you. It doesn’t take much. A couple of lines of dialogue can be enough to turn a bland tale into an immersive experience.
  • Figures of speech — Analogies, metaphors, and other figures of speech can do wonders for a story. If I wanted to convey what stories are and why they matter, I could go on for paragraphs about the intricate details. However, I would be much better suited to Yann Martel’s analogy: “Just as music is noise that makes sense, a painting is colour that makes sense, so a story is life that makes sense.”

Final Thoughts

There is not a person alive that cannot tell a compelling story. As with most skills, it does take study and practice. But it is well worth every hour of practice you put into it.

Learn to give your stories a proper takeaway and let it guide the tale.

Learn to limit your background to improve the focus of the story.

Learn to use anecdotes, dialogue, figures of speech, and every other tool available to make your stories more compelling.

The stronger you get in these skills, the better your stories will become. People will come away from your stories with exactly the message you intend. No technical skill can do that for you. That is a power that belongs only to the storyteller.

But wait… there’s more!

Your stories don’t just benefit those you tell them to. They benefit you. I’m not just talking about the promotions and other benefits from conveying better takeaways, although those are great as well. I’m talking about the fact that storytelling is your way of making sense of the world.

By telling stories, you gain clarity into your own existence. The same skills you learn to explain your tales to others also enhance your understanding of yourself.

Setting your takeaway teaches you to set goals. Learning what to include in your background teaches you how to focus your efforts. Using anecdotes, dialogues, and figures of speech gives you the equivalent of several new perspectives on every new piece of information you come across.

I’ll leave you with a quote that perfectly sums up why I tell stories, written or otherwise.

“The very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life.” — Zadie Smith

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