The Art of Storytelling: Taking a Deep Dive Into the Mechanics of a Great Story
As Andrew Stanton approached the stage, the audience waited with anticipation. It was February 2012 and more than 1000 people had gathered in Chicago for the TED2012 live event. After an overwhelming applause, the audience grew silent, and Andrew began his story.
“A Tourist is backpacking through the Highlands of Scotland and he stops at a pub to get a drink. The only people in there are the bartender and an old man, nurturing a beer. He orders a pint, and they sit in silence for a while. Suddenly, the old man turns to him and says:
‘You see this bar? I built this bar with my bare hands; I found the finest wood in the county and gave it more love and care than my own child, but do they call me McGregor the Bar Builder? No.’
He points out of the window.
‘You see that stone wall out there? I built that stone wall with my bare hands, found every stone and placed them just so, through the rain and the cold, but do they call me McGregor the Stonewall Builder? No.’
He points out of the other window.
‘You see that pier on the lake out there? I built that pier with my bare hands, drove the pilings against the tide in the sand, plank by plank, but do they call me McGregor the Pier-Builder? No.’
But you f*ck one goat…”
The entire audience burst out laughing. Andrew let 7 seconds go by and then continued his speech.
Storytelling is actually joke-telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending; knowing that everything you are saying from the first sentence to the last is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understanding of who we are as human beings. We all love stories; we are born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning, and nothing gives greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. Stories can cross the barriers of the past, present, and future and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and others, real or imagined. A very close friend of mine always carries in his wallet a quote from a social worker that says, frankly, that there isn’t anyone that you couldn’t learn to love once you have heard their story. The way I like to interpret that is through probably the greatest story commandment: ‘Make me care.’ Make me care emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically. We all know what it is like to not care. You have gone through hundreds of TV channels switching through channel after channel before you actually stop on one; it might be halfway over, but something catches you. You are drawn in and you start to care. That is not by chance. That is by design.
Andrew Stanton is one of the most famous storytellers in Hollywood. His movies, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E, to name but a few, have become blockbusters and have probably revolutionized the way we view and perceive animated character films.
Their incredible narrative is not based on luck, nor was it a momentary inspiration. Andrew Stanton, while writing these stories, knew exactly where to focus on and how to make them successful. In his own words, he actually knew how to care.
Like Andrew Stanton, I did not decide to start this chapter with a recount of his story by chance. I wanted to actually find a concrete way to introduce you to the power of storytelling. For I hold the conviction that storytelling is a skill every single one of us ought to understand and eventually cultivate.
The Science Behind the Art of Storytelling in a Nutshell
Below is a modified excerpt from the short story “Scheherazade” by the great novelist Haruki Murakami that illuminates the essence of a great story:
When I was young, I loved listening to my grandfather tell me stories. I didn’t know whether his stories were true, invented, or partly true and partly invented. I had no way of knowing. Reality and supposition, observation and pure fancy seemed jumbled together in his narratives. I, therefore, enjoyed them as a child might, without ever asking too many questionings. What possible difference could it make to me, after all, if they were lies or truth, or a complicated patchwork of the two? Whatever the case, my grandfather had a gift for storytelling that touched me in my heart. No matter what sort of story it was, he managed to make it special. His voice, his timing and his pacing were all flawless. He captured his listener’s attention, tantalized him, drove him to ponder and speculate, and then, at the end, gave him precisely what he’d been seeking. Enthralled, I was able to forget the reality that surrounded me, if only for a moment. Like a blackboard wiped with a damp cloth, my worries were erased, as were unpleasant memories. Who could ask for more? At this point in my life, this kind of forgetting was what I desired more than anything else.
The essence of a great story is its ability not only to make you care, as Andrew Stanton stated, but also to make you forget; forget your worries, your problems, even your pain. The story helps you enter a new, magical world that is extremely appealing. The person who helps you achieve such a thing automatically becomes extremely appealing too.
So, why is this actually happening? What kind of process occurs in our brains that can help us experience all of the feelings evoked by a good story?
Let’s say you are in a meeting room and you have to attend a PowerPoint presentation by one of your colleagues. During this process, two parts of your brain, the Broca’s area, and the Wernicke’s area are activated.
These are the language-processing areas, which help us decode words and determine meaning. Other than that, they don’t do anything. Therefore, when this process takes place alone, it is almost impossible for our brains to feel engaged with the speaker, and we consequently lose interest.
When we are being told a story, however, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but so is any other area of our brain that we would use to experience the events of the story.
In essence, you are not just listening to a story, you make yourself part of it.
Evidently, a story can put your whole brain to work. And yet, it gets better.
There is something extraordinary happening during the narration of a story, something that helps the brains of the narrator and the listener to synchronize.
Uri Hasson, Associate Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, in one of his papers, states:
When we narrate stories that have had a huge impact in our lives, we can pass the feeling we have experienced to other people too. During a research study, when the narrator spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into the listeners’ brains.
So, anything you have experienced, you can help others experience the same thing, or at least activate the same brain areas in them that were activated during your experience.
The S.E.E.U. System
Storytelling is an essential part of communication. It is the most effective way to learn, digest information, become energized, be influenced, and get carried away.
Although it seems quite challenging to master the art of storytelling, when you manage to understand the main principles of a great story, you are in a position to deconstruct them and build a system off of them.
My storytelling system is called S.E.E.U. (see u) and it is inspired by Andrew Stanton’s TED talk, as well as countless interesting stories I have heard and read.
The main pillars of the system are as follows:
- Stick to a central theme/spine
- Evoke wonder
- Embrace change
- Use personal experience
Stick to a central theme/spine
All well-drawn characters within a story have a spine. This is their inner motor. A dominant, unconscious goal that they are striving towards. An itch that they cannot scratch. Michael Corleone, for instance, in The Godfather, was driven by a constant underlying theme, which was to please his father. It consumed his entire life, and was visible throughout the movie.
When you are telling a story, whether you want to draw on details from your personal experiences or from somewhere else, try to be congruent with your theme.
Is your story about existential angst? Is your story about the struggle of being human? Is it about the difficulty you face as an entrepreneur?
Whatever your theme and its emotional underpinning make sure that it prevails throughout the story. This is what keeps people engaged and helps them resonate with your emotional world.
Tip: Details are important to help the listener know more, but try and make them relevant. If you are discussing, for example, an experience where the main actors were also your friends, don’t interrupt the action to provide information about your friends’ backgrounds. Yes, you probably could do that if you were writing a novel, but while narrating a story, one needs to describe only events relevant to the main theme so that the story flows harmoniously.
When it comes to a great story, wonder is the magic ingredient. In Andrew Stanton’s words:
You need to genuinely evoke wonder. Wonder is honest, completely innocent and it cannot be artificially manufactured. There is no greater gift than the ability of another human to give you that feeling. Managing to hold your audience still for just a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder is a skill that, when performed correctly, can reach you at an almost cellular level.
A great example of a person who manages to evoke wonder in his speeches is Dr. Jordan Peterson. Here is a small clip that signifies that:
He has this incredible ability to talk about big ideas and attempt to answer life-defining questions, just by choosing topics that can speak to our unconscious mind and help us feel immediately engaged.
Wonder is strongly associated with themes that are not commonly experienced in our everyday lives, or with situations that flirt with the idea of the extraordinary and are difficult to achieve.
Whenever you want to spice up your story with wonder, try to think of events where the protagonist exceeded the expectations of his or her surroundings and accomplished something beautiful and extraordinary.
TIP: Wonder is not only evoked by the plot or the setting of the story. It is also transmitted through the emotional state of the narrator. Your energy during narration will affect the energy of your audience. Try to use small pauses and silences, for impact and emphasis.
Embrace change in your story
Change is fundamental in any story. If things become static in a story, the story dies; life is never static.
There is this quote from the famous British playwright William Archer:
Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.
I cannot think of a more insightful definition. When you are telling a story, ask yourself, have you constructed anticipation? In the short term, have you made me want to know what is going to happen next? More importantly, have you made me want to know how the story will conclude in the long term? Have you described honest conflicts that create doubt regarding what the outcome might be?
Make the audience work for their meal. Give them just enough, so that they want to find out more. Humans are born problem solvers. We are compelled to deduce and to deduct because this is what real life actually looks like. It is this well-organized absence of information that will draw us in. Give your audience a 2+2 in a story. Never give them a 4. The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you will succeed or fail in engaging with your audience.
TIP: Give your audience just the right amount. If you give too many details, they will get lost, or worse, bored. If you don’t give them enough, they may lack the context required to fully grasp the story or to see themselves in your tale.
Use personal experience
When you tell a story, don’t overanalyze it. Use what you know. Draw from it. This doesn’t always mean in terms of plot or facts, it means capturing the truth of your experiences, expressing values you feel personally, deep down your core.
Personal stories help us to speak from our hearts. Once we do so, the listener immediately identifies value in our story and can easily relate to it. As discussed earlier, people want you to make them care, or sometimes even forget. That is why personal experiences are important. They are the most effective way to make yourself relatable and help others become lost in your narrative.
The best storytellers look to their own memories and life experiences for ways to illustrate the message they want to get across. What events in your life make you believe in the idea that you are sharing?
Tip: The best storytellers draw us immediately into the action. They capture our attention and set the tone for a unique audience experience. Avoid opening with something like, “I’d like to tell you a story about a time when I learned…” Instead, drop us straight into the action, and explain the lesson later.
The whole world is built on stories.
Religions, political parties, companies, and various social groups are using storytelling to promote their ideas.
As Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens:
“Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories.”
I don’t know which stories are the best, but there is one thing I know for sure.
If you are not capable of writing your own story, other people will write it for you.
Another great way to improve your storytelling skills is via the “30 challenges – 30 days – zero excuses” project. Many challenges suggested are from the social-skills plane and allow room for different social approaches to be honed.
Also, don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter to get my articles in your inbox on a weekly basis. It is awe-inspiring, free, easy to unsubscribe and some great resources will wait for you once you confirm your subscription
Here is also the video essay version of the story:
Featured Image: Caspar David Friedrich – Wanderer above the sea of fog.
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