Building Connections with Oral Storytelling

Humans have been telling stories face to face since forever, and doing it well gives you a leg up personally and professionally. Compelling business presentations are critical for success, and natural storytelling techniques can take them to the next level. Even outside of business, stories help you build relationships and entertain your friends. You can improve your oral storytelling today by paying attention to structure, shortening your stories, using your voice well, and supporting what you say with your face and hands. 

Oral storytelling doesn’t just happen around a campfire - it’s something you can do anytime you’re the center of attention, whether presenting, at a party, or yes, even camping. By "oral storytelling", I mean telling a story to an audience that can see and hear you. Many of the techniques will also work with sound only, but our baseline assumption is that you are telling your story to someone in the same room. In the digital age, many folks overlook how rich a channel face to face interaction is - you have the content of the words themselves, of course, but also your tone of voice, facial expression, timing, volume, hand gestures, referencing things in your immediate environment, and so on. The most important differentiator, though, is feedback - you can actually watch how your story is landing and tweak as you go - an enormously powerful gift that authors and painters would kill for. 

As with any storytelling, always start with structure. For oral storytelling, structure is especially important, because it lacks some of the other cues that might help people follow the thread of the story. In written stories, paragraphs, headers, and typographic styles help to make clear how thoughts are organized. In a movie or graphic novel, visual actions can make obvious the intent of even subtle or confusing dialog. With oral storytelling, everything must happen in our audience's heads - which is both the challenge and the strength of the form. When your audience is engaged, they are an active participant, not a passive consumer. 

To make participation easy, help them out with a solid structure. Dan Roam's PUMA tools introduced before were created for in-person presentations, and the most time-tested template is Drama, modeled on the "Hero's Journey". This is the form that stories have taken all over the world for as long as there have been stories to tell. Every Disney movie, every episode of the week, every bedtime story follows this form. All of this means that we really know this structure deep in our bones, and we won't get lost in stories that follow it - even with unfamiliar characters, stakes, and action. When in doubt, try to structure any personal stories this way, and if you can get away with it, do the same thing with business stories. 

Assuming you have a good structure, the next most critical factor is length. Unlike a book, where people can put it down whenever they want, they're stuck listening to your whole story in one go. As storytellers it's on us to give our audience something worth paying attention to. While great storytellers can keep audiences enthralled for a long time, you make your job a lot easier by reducing how much "good story" you have to craft - which you do by keeping your stories short and sweet. As guidance on how to achieve this, my favorite advice comes from Ramit Sethi:  "Start late and end early". Get to the good stuff quickly, and don't linger too long once you've covered it. Without training, most of us err on the side of too much context - lots of set up and wrapping up. "Start late" means you should come in as close to the main point of the story as possible. "End Early" means don't detail all of the follow up after the climax. You need a little bit of resolution for a story to feel complete, but rather than detailing all 107 times you've used that life lesson from summer camp, just sum up how it has changed you for the better. If you find it hard to remove details, remember one of the strengths of oral storytelling: people can always ask for more if they want it. 

While you're recounting your story, besides what you're saying, you'll also want to pay attention to how you're saying it. Your voice is the main way you do this. All of us do an incredible amount of sophisticated stuff with our voices without even realizing it - conveying complex emotional undertones, subtly altering timing for comedic effect, raising and lowering volume to match energy levels, and so on. Many of these techniques can be learned as specific tricks or tips - for example, try humming "Happy Birthday" before you speak, and your voice will come out a little richer. These are the kind of things you can consciously learn from singing or speaking classes. As a starting point, though, I encourage you to take advantage of the lifetime of practice you have using your voice unconsciously. Rather than trying specific techniques with your voice, instead focus on the emotional and psychological state you want portray to your audience and then do something you did as a kid - play pretend. Need to depict the angry drunk from the bar? Imagine yourself feeling mad and drunk. Describing the life changing emotional experience of the sun rising over the mountains in Yellowstone? Vividly picture being back there, and let your voice do the work. As you start doing this more often, you'll develop more awareness of what you're actually doing - "oh, when I'm acting mad, I raise my voice this much" - which you can later tweak as you pick up some conscious techniques or see how people react to you. 

Besides your voice, you also have a wealth of visual aids at your disposal: your hands, expressions, and posture. Even though your voice and words are the stars of the show, your hands and face are important supporting actors. The same advice for "embodying" emotions applies to facial expressions as it does to tone of voice. You may want to learn to slightly exaggerate your facial expressions for a greater impact - it's a lot of fun to practice making the biggest, most ridiculous expressions you can while looking in a mirror. For posture, you generally want to stand up straight and confident, but sometimes you may want to hunch over or lean in to bring parts of the story to life. Hand gestures are much harder to pin down for advice. Depending on your background and culture, you may naturally and frequently "talk with your hands", in which case, keep doing what you're doing. If not, though, you'll want to start using some intentional gestures when telling your stories. A few basics to get you started are things like holding your hands out palm up to offer something, bringing them down forcefully to convey drama or surprise, or gesturing back towards yourself to emphasize your own role or feelings in the story. As with the other techniques, the trick is to find movements that feel natural and support what you're saying. Practice and feedback will help out a lot here, but start out by making sure your hands are not in your pockets, behind your back, messing with your hair, or the like. 

There’s all kinds of resources on oral storytelling you can check out if you want more, but if you have tightly structured, concise stories told with energy and animation, you’ll have audiences hanging on your words in no time. Take advantage of this very rich, very human channel by using the "hero's journey" where possible, tighten up your stories to be short and sweet, and use your voice and expressions to heighten the emotion of what you're telling at the time. As with any other skill, practice with good feedback is what will get you there. Fortunately, telling stories is something you'll have lots of opportunities to practice in low stakes settings: hanging out with friends, going out, dinner with your family - anywhere people gather.


Want more stuff like this post delivered straight to your inbox every week? Sign up for my newsletter below.