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How to Tell Stories. Part 4.

When Ellen & I were younger, we lived in Berkeley & we’d often go to the bookstore for a treat, since we both love to read for hours. Along the way, we’d always go by these two homeless guys who hung out right by a great Italian restaurant. They were Vietnam vets & we had great conversations & they’d usually talk us out of a dollar or two. One time, we loaded up both of our small children in the stroller & went off to the bookstore & as we got closer one of them started asking us for spare change. His partner recognized us & punched him in the ribs. Oh man, he said, I’m sorry. You have a family. We should be giving you money. So, he jumps up & starts stuffing crumpled bills in my jacket pocket & I’m digging them out & giving them back & saying, no really, it’s fine. Finally, I give him back all the bills & we start walking off. But as we leave, he calls out, those are beautiful kids you got. Make sure you teach ‘em what’s right. I looked back over my shoulder & said how am I going to know that? & he blinks & starts laughing. Good point, he says, Well, make sure you don’t teach them any obvious wrongs then.

That’s the thing with stories. You already know how to tell them. Consider this: you’re actually pretty good at them, in your own way, as long as you don’t get trapped by some of the obvious wrongs. Those usually start to creep in when you start thinking of you telling stories as something outside yourself. When you start thinking of yourself as THAT PERSON WHO LOOKS LIKE YOU, TELLING STORIES. That’s when you get weird & stilted & you forget your place & you digress wildly. That’s when you generally start to suck as a storyteller

So, think of today’s storytelling tip as a way of getting past the obvious wrongs. I call it… 

Make it Personal.

That’s right. Even if you’re telling Little Red Riding Hood for the thousandth time, turn it into a story about you. Or someone you know. Flesh out the details with real things that happened to you & the people you know. It's easy to do with phrases like this: This happened to me. Or, my grandmother first told me about this. Or, I remember the summer we… You get the idea. I have a friend who says telling a story should always cost you something. If it doesn’t cost you, if it doesn’t matter to you, why should we care? By making it personal to you, the storyteller, you’ll find it matters more. (In a funny way, we have to believe our own story before we can tell it to anyone else..) Pretty simple. Make it personal.

Your audience doesn’t have to know that the part about the squashed lizard in your garage happened to a friend of yours. Or that the part about the little boy petting the white Bengal tiger was something you overheard when you were in the waiting room at the dentist. Or that time you almost got hit by lightning was from a news item on page 15 of the paper yesterday. 

You’re telling the story, so make it personal. It all happened to you, or someone you know. So, that you can absolutely, positively verify that it’s true. Or, at least, mostly true. :-)

with love, Brian


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Reader Comments (6)

I love this concept. The only thing that worries me is if someone calls me out, you know? What if someone says "that didn't happen to YOU...I've heard that before." Then you've lost all credibility and sincerity. How do you handle that--both the actual event as well as the fear of something like that happening?

March 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjust jill

I think that's just a matter of degree, Jill & I think it tends to happen more when you're starting out than later on as you learn how much you can make it personal.

As for adding the details from your own life, you've got an almost infinite resource. Don't be afraid to use it. The smell of cinnamon in your grandmother's kitchen. The way you chewed on the wax from the raspberry jam & then made vampire teeth from it. The first time you tried French kissing & really all it was was touching the tip of Jamie Robertson's tongue with yours & then going Eeewwwww. You can weave these into any story to the point where it's only recognizable as something directly from your own life.

Because, in the end, any story is more about the journey. The details you bring in to the story make the journey real & memorable.

Just a side note: When you add details in to the story, keep them light. Toss them in as asides. That's what gives it the personal texture. When you do that, people tend to go with you.

BUT if they don't? It helps to have a fallback response. You'll find them in all story traditions & it's part of the drama & ritual that is storytelling at its best. 'That's the way it came to me' is one of my favorites from the Middle Eastern tellers. When it's a personal story, something a little more flip might be in order. Like 'That's the way I remember the truth of it. But I might have the facts wrong.' followed by a sly smile. (Try it sometime. It's like sharing a secret with your audience..)

You see, once you've got your listeners in story listening mode, there's a lot of room to play. People know they're being taken on a ride & THAT'S PART OF THE FUN. In some ways, if you act like you've been busted, you're breaking the contract you have with your listeners.

As for the fear of it happening, I'd say the best defense is building a story so rich with your own details that it becomes real to you. Not that you've become delusional & believe it was how the actual events went, but that you have found the truth in the story when you've arranged the details around it.

Hope that gives you a start..

with love, Brian

March 31, 2009 | Registered CommenterZenBandit

<When you start thinking of yourself as THAT PERSON WHO LOOKS LIKE YOU, TELLING STORIES. That’s when you get weird & stilted & you forget your place & you digress wildly.>
This is EXACTLY what happens when I start playing music in front of people, and part of my process of learning to play better and in public during this past year, is to stay within the song and keep it present in my mind and heart. Thanks for the perfect description.
I'm enjoying your blog - Ellen revealed your secret!

April 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Friedland

Yeah, I should know better than to tell Ellen anything..:-)

But it's so true. I think it's the thing we run into in any performance situation. Whether music. Or storytelling. Or reading our writing at a writer's workshop. Just learning to get out of our own way so we can do the thing we do...

btw hope you're all doing well. (Thought we'd see Ethan over spring break, since we seemed to have seen every other person in that age range (or had them stay with us)...)

with love, Brian

April 2, 2009 | Registered CommenterZenBandit

Ethan was busy with the hospital and the police over spring break in Mexico. We were happy that the first call we got was "i'm ok".

April 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Friedland

I'm assuming the second call was 'Can you send bail?' :-)

I'm glad he was all right. I'll look forward to hearing the whole story sometime soon...

April 2, 2009 | Registered CommenterZenBandit
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