On the cruise a friend was asking me about my days in pickup. What was the worst rejection I experienced, he asked? That's a path paved with so much rejection that it's sort of like asking which leaf on a tree is the greenest, but one stuck out in my mind.
I was at a place called Dallas Nightclub in Austin, Texas. There was a large ice-skating rink shaped dance floor in the middle, and tables and chairs around that. The music would alternate between hip hop and country, bringing a different crowd to the dance floor every other song.
My friend and I walked around the perimeter, taking turns approaching groups of girls. It was my turn, and I walked up to three pretty girls and started talking. Very quickly, I started telling a story. I can't remember which story it was, but I remember how I felt telling it. It quickly became obvious that they were not interested in my story, and I was so nervous that I was helpless to do anything but continue.
Suddenly one of the girls broke eye contact and turned away, leaving me with her two friends. Okay, there are two of us and two of them, I thought. That's not so bad. I kept on going with the story.
Then the second girl scooted away slowly, leaving me with just one girl listening to my incredibly boring story. This situation was getting bad, but I didn't know what to do. Obviously failing in a ball of flames, I stuck with telling my story until the last girl turned her back, too, as I was mid-sentence.
I think it was around then that I decided I needed to learn how to tell stories. Like so many other things, the problem isn't that it's a terribly difficult skill, just that no one ever bothers to teach it. Once you're good at telling stories, you can entertain people with crumbs. I used to demonstrate by telling strangers about everything I bought at the grocery store that day.
The first rule of storytelling is that it's all about the listener. You should be making eye contact, not just because only creeps stare off in the distance while talking, but because that's how you gauge their interest level. The experience of telling a story is a dynamic one, always feeding off of the other person's level of interest.
A story has three basic parts. There's the setup, the buildup, and the payoff. The setup should be as short as possible, the buildup should be as long as you can maintain interest, and then the payoff should be short.
The setup sets the scene. You give the listener everything they need to know to make the payoff worthwhile, and nothing else. A very common pitfall here is to dive into every possible tangent. This bores the listener and makes them doubt a payoff is ever coming. Rather than give your friend's full background, you say something like, "... and I was with my crazy friend John, who later flew to Libya to join the rebels..." If they want to hear about John, they can ask you about him later. If they don't, you've spared them the boredom.
The buildup is the exciting part of the story where you're withholding some piece of information. This is the part of the story where you'd be saying things like, "... so the night finally came when we decided to do the heist. From our designated positions, we slowly crept into place. I was in front, so I put my hand on the doorknob and twisted. It was unlocked..."
It's during the buildup that you really need to gauge how interested the listener is. Once you get used to this part, you can accurately tell how engaged they are. If they're very engaged, continue to give them more details to make the story come alive, even if those details aren't completely necessary. You'd say things like, "So you need to understand-- I'd never stolen anything before. Not even a pack of chewing gum. And yet here I was, crawling through the ceilings on my hands and knees, shaking with fear..."
On the other hand, if the person is impatient or not interested, you make the buildup very short and move on to the payoff. This is how you build trust-- if someone sees that you pick up on cues and don't rattle on when they're bored, they'll let their guards down and want to hear longer stories.
The payoff is the grand reveal. It's the twist at the end of the story, the lesson you learned, or even the obvious conclusion presented in all of its glory. Some stories have amazing payoffs, "And it turned out it was my best friend from high school all along!" but others are small, "And since then I've never once eaten a hot dog."
The important part of the payoff is that you cut it short and end on a high note. Very often someone will ruin a story by enjoying the glory of the payoff and trying to revel in it for too long, going on and on with useless details. If someone does that once, you never want to hear another story from them, because there's the threat of it never ending.
Storytelling is an important skill to have. Think about history class-- if you remember anything of it, it's not the dry facts on the blackboards, but the interesting stories. Telling stories is how you share your world with others and relate it to them. Being a bad storyteller is actually disrespectful, because it ignores the interests of the other person and imposes your own desire to talk up on them.
The actual content of the story is the least important part of the process. Sure, a heist will always make a better story than a grocery list, but a good grocery list story is certainly better than a bad heist story. Practice the structure, pay attention to the facial feedback of your listeners, and try to improve. And maybe, just maybe, the day will come when people don't turn their backs on you mid-sentence.
Photo is the chef on our cruise ship. He looks like he's telling a story.
Shout out to Adrienne for suggesting this topic! Always open to suggestions.
I'm struggling to find info to contact SETT, which is why I'm replying to this post. Basically, I was really impressed by your site and Sebastian's, and wanted to move my wordpress blog over. Every time I tried to enter my payment info, the site would freeze, and I couldn't go any further.
Foolishly, I continued to try to do it, thinking that because I never got any confirmation emails, no payment was going through. I was wrong. It was only when my card was declined in Starbucks today that I checked my bank account - between the 9th of September and the 13th of October, I have paid $19 16 times!!! I never received any confirmation, so I didn't think anything of it til today. I just want to make it clear that I'm not angry, it was my foolishly trying time and time again that made this happen!
But I do want to resolve the situation, and get my money back, because the service doesn't work for me, and I've now paid $304.
My email address is olmanning AT gmail DOT com. I'm happy to send screenshots to you to confirm that this has happened.
Thanks so much, and sorry for this hassle.
I normally don't comment on your blog posts, but I must say that I really enjoyed this! Thanks for sharing and dissecting this art, in which many many people really don't know how to do.
I just want to share that I used to be a better story teller too, and I knew this because my friends would always yawn at me every time I tried. I really didn't like the yawning, so I taught myself how to get better until I discovered the basic science of story telling that you wrote here.
Yes, this is about telling a story. The truth is that a girl knows with 5 seconds if you are acceptable or not. If the girl doesn't consider you acceptable, it doesn't matter if your story was about meeting the President of the United States or flying to moon, she won't be interested. I have an old copy of The Game. Which chapter of it are you in? I don't believe in routines. They may capture some interest, but they don't build attraction.
You're so right about the history... My 12 yr old son is fortunate enough to have a World History teacher who is also an actress. He comes home and tells of the minutiae of cultures with tremendous excitement--all because she presents it as dynamic storytelling. He absolutely loves her class.
Creative writing is a great way to practice storytelling. So if you're not sure where to start, or if jumping in to face-to-face storytelling is too much to handle, then I'd recommend trying your hand at creative writing first. Helps you to develop the imagery and details that are so important to a great story.
Guess what? I've got a new book out. I hate all the launching and promotion sort of stuff, and I'm not sure it actually helped my last book, so I'm going to do things the old-fashioned way and just quietly announce it here.
A little over a year ago I wrote a story about visiting a tea shop in Amsterdam. There was no moral to the story and no lesson, it was just an attempt to capture a really nice day that I had and an interesting person that I met. People loved the story, which made me think that maybe I should write a book full of travel stories.
So I did. The Amsterdam story is the only one I copied from the blog. The rest I wrote from scratch, and most of them have never even been mentioned on the blog, so they'll be new to you. Leo proofread the book for me and thought that the Amanda story was one of the least interesting, so if you like that one, you'll probably love the book.
I had a lot of fun writing the book and felt good making a tribute to all of the people who have contributed to my travels over the past eight or so years. All of my favorite memories while traveling are because of the amazing people I've met, and most of those memories are captured in these stories.
I had dinner last night with my host, a local VC, and my friend from MercyCorps who does work in Gaza, and we had a very interesting discussion about outsiders’ perception of Palestine versus reality.
My friend from MercyCorps is preparing a “one pager” she’s going to use for fundraising, and I read through it to offer a second set of eyes. The stories of the help they’re providing and the impact they’ve had was great, but the most powerful part was simply a list of facts about Gaza.
Before reading the fact sheet, I had an image of Gaza. A mid-sized town, maybe 30k-50k people. Mostly one or two story buildings, most dilapidated and largely in ruins. Very little electricity, very poor education system. The only pictures or videos I've seen of Gaza were of bombs and missiles raining down, the city tinted green by night vision cameras.
But I was completely wrong. Gaza has a population of 1.7 million people. There are several universities there. And of those university students, 60% are women (and that includes in subjects like Computer Science). And apparently, they have great internet there.