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How to Improve Your Storytelling

by Loren Ekroth, Ph.D.

A key skill of conversation is being able to tell a story that engages the imagination of the listener. A few folks are great at storytelling; many folks are just so-so; still others are terrible. A main cause of such mediocrity is that the stories they tell lack structure and ramble along so that listeners have difficulty following the story-line and may miss the conclusion - if there is one.

I am fortunate to have learned how to tell a story at my father's knee. Dad was a talented raconteur who used colorful descriptions and emphases in his stories, sometimes adding dialects to further spice them up. Just how my father learned this craft I don't know (his own father had died when he was three.) But dad had natural gifts, such as a good ear for nuances of language, and he was a sharp observer of people. He mainly learned by an apprenticeship of observation.

A well-crafted story has a spine, a kind of template into which the details fit. First, a skeleton, then sufficient flesh added to complete the body. An incomplete story is like a piece of music with a chord unresolved so that listeners are left unsatisfied.

We all know that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and end. A more detailed structure is necessary, however, one that the members of StoryNet christened "the spine of the story." I include here the spine as described by Kat Koppett in her excellent book, "Training to Imagine."

The Spine

Once upon a time . . .
Every day . . .
But one day . . .
Because of that . . .
Because of that . . .
(Repeat as needed)
Until finally . . .
Ever since then . . .
(And the moral of the story is . . .

That's it. A template that contains, as she wrote, "A platform, a change and consequences, and a resolution."

Not only can speakers, preachers and teachers benefit from using such a story spine, but so also can conversationalists. When you listen to the best storytellers, you'll be able to sense the structure, probably a variation of the above, as they tell each story.

The content of stories will vary, but there will always be a need for a predictable structure. Humans since time began have been storytellers, and by now a need for story structure is probably hard-wired into our evolved brains.

Because the use of stories has become so important in the worlds of business and public speaking, many people sense a need to improve their skills. To improve you'll need:

  • good storytellers to observe (models)
  • a clear story spine
  • colorful details (flesh)
  • practice, preferably with feedback

Women especially (who have until recently been denied the opportunity to be the center of attention that storytelling practice requires) may need some extra attention to improve their storytelling skills.

My son Aaron, now 32, often used to ask me when he was young, "Dad, please tell me another story about when you were a little kid." And so I would, describing a time when my dad took me fishing, or when I fell off the building and broke my collar-bone, or when I sold firecrackers to students at my high school and they lighted and tossed them out of the classroom windows. Aaron has long ago forgotten many of my abstract ramblings, but he still remembers many of these personal stories 27 years later.

Practice sketching out your stories in advance, then insert the details. Eventually you will find that the spine in your stories becomes a framework that you sense intuitively, and that will free you up to improvise the details in the moment.

The spine described by Kat Koppett is sometimes called "traditional." It's a structure that has a beginning, middle and end. The key to using this structure in most settings is a well-defined inciting event, a protagonist and a climax. Those elements will drive your story.

Another powerful structure is called The Hero's Quest. The quest is probably the most commonly understood structure. A hero faces a challenge and sets out to overcome the challenge. The driving force in this structure is the pursuit of the goal whether it is tangible or intangible.

There are others you all have experienced, such as The Search(for meaning);A Strange Land (hero is in new situation.); Boy Meets Girl (romance); and Coming of Age (personal transformation). But you can start with the simplest, Beginning, middle, and end so you have the feel of sharing a story with clear structure.

One especially useful learning tool: Modeling. Look for the best storytellers you know and study how they do it. Study them in conversations and in presentations and also on film and TV. You can be a Robin Hood who takes (borrows) skills from the people who are rich in the storytelling craft and then gives away these riches when telling your own stories.

Loren Ekroth 2011, All rights reserved

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. His articles and programs strengthen critical communication skills for business and professional people. Contact Loren at Loren@conversation-matters.com. Check out a wealth of valuable resources and articles at http://www.conversation-matters.com and subscribe to his weekly free Better Conversations ezine (which also entitles you to two very informative reports).

Some Related Articles:

In Conversation, One Size Doesn't Fit All


How to confidently talk and make friends - especially if you're shy


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