Storytelling Part 1: Introduction
Anyone who wants to communicate with other humans needs storytelling, but most folks have no idea what it really is, much less how to improve it. Some people even have the misguided notion that storytelling is worthless fluff. With this series, we’ll clear up that misconception and then cover the best techniques for improving your storytelling.
As we did with creativity, let’s begin by defining “storytelling”. You’ve probably heard it used in a number of contexts. Some folks use it to mean the ancient tradition of oral storytelling - like you do around a campfire. Others use it to refer to the craft of writing or making movies or even comics. Personally, I define storytelling in a way common to all of these media: the synthesis of structure, content, and delivery used to convey meaning. Now let’s break that down into its component parts. Structure is how you organize the elements of your story, content is the information and impressions conveyed, and delivery is the combination of methods relevant to your medium. When you bring all of these things together, you get a story, whatever your vehicle.
Now that we know what storytelling is, why do we care? Most of us don’t get paid to make movies or write novels, so what do we need with hoity-toity storytelling? It turns out, anyone who ever needs to get other humans to understand or remember something needs storytelling. People are more likely to pay attention to stories and more likely to remember them, even on the scale of generations. Our brains love narratives so much that we even invent them where they don’t exist. Heck, forget about other people - you can even use storytelling to help yourself remember things better. The good news is that you can secure these benefits in any field that requires communicating with other people by improving your storytelling.
Many people see storytelling as a nice extra at best, and at worst as useless embellishment that distracts from what matters. Even if you accept that storytelling is useful, you might see it as a mysterious knack that some people just have. Fortunately, when you take a look at storytelling, you discover that it can get results and can be practiced. Notice that above we included content as one of the building blocks of storytelling: you can’t tell a good story without material suited to its purpose.
The amount and kind of content required by a story will vary based on what you’re doing with it. A joke can be pretty light on content, because the humor comes from the structure and delivery. On the other hand, if you try to ask for a huge investment with nothing but pretty slides well-ordered buzzwords, you’re gonna have a bad time. Since content is going to be specific to what stories you decide to tell, we’re not going to talk about it so much here. I’m assuming that you’re good on the content you want to share, but looking at storytelling’s other two components points the way to improving: master the structures and delivery techniques relevant to your chosen field of storytelling.
We’ll focus on the 80/20 of storytelling by covering three foundational skills: structure, practice, and delivery. On each topic I’ll detail the efforts that will have the biggest impact for the least effort necessary. We’ll go over techniques relevant to written, spoken, and visual storytelling. Even though this series will only present foundational approaches, we’ll close with a list of resources that you can dive into if you really catch the storytelling bug.
Now that we’ve arrived at a better understanding of what storytelling is and why it matters, I hope you’re as excited as I am to jump into ways to get better. Improving my storytelling has had unexpected and exciting ripple effects throughout my life, and I can’t wait to hear about how you experience the same.
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