Stories are great things to have. You can use them to regale a crowd at a party, or your friends over lunch. They can boost morale and brighten everyone’s day. The most boring situations can be livened up when we take the time to listen to each other’s stories, and tell our own. Stories can make people laugh, or put them in awe. They can be the best tools in your arsenal whether you’re looking to impress, entertain, or merely kill time.
This is all assuming, however, if you’re at all a good storyteller.
A bad story can be worse than silence. I’m sure we’ve all heard a bad story which we couldn’t wait to hear the end of. These stories are boring and seemingly never-ending. You’d rather hit your head against the wall until you slip into a coma than listen to the speaker go on for another minute.
What makes a good story? How do you keep yourself from boring the absolute hell out of everyone around you, or being (rightfully) ignored?
1. Stay focused.
Even if it’s an informal setting, take the time to structure your story. Know your stories beginning and ending, and connect those two things in a manner which is efficient and engaging.
One of the most frustrating things when listening to someone’s story is when they can’t stay on point. They deviate on tangents and descriptions which have little or nothing to do with the direction of the story. This deviation can be okay when it’s rare and short, like terse side notes. They can breathe a little extra life into your tale. However, some people make the mistake of getting completely lost in these tangents, which leaves the listener wondering where you’re going with your story, if they can even remember what it was about in the first place.
For example, maybe you want to tell a story about something interesting that happened when you drove to pick up smokes from the corner store, like running into a celebrity. Keep it at that. Maybe you want to throw in how this is a store you always go to, or what clothes the movie store was wearing. Little descriptors like that add context and life. However, a bad storyteller will go on some long and unrelated rant about the car they drive, how long they’ve owned it for, the mileage, and why Dodge is better than Ford long before ever getting to their encounter with Samuel L. Jackson at the Mac’s down the street.
A friend of mine is a constant offender of this point. She likes to tell stories which go in so many irrelevant directions that I feel like a newborn baby after about five minutes of listening to her speak. She’ll start by telling me about a night out she had, and this crazy thing that happened which she needs to share. However, I don’t know if she ever gets to the good part, because she’ll go on about anything, including the dress she was wearing, and where she got that dress from, and how she got it with her friends a year ago from this store, and this was her favorite store before she moved to this town, except for another store which was better, but it closed down, because there was a fire, and nobody knows what caused the fire, but in the news they said it was electrical, BUT ANYWAY. That “BUT ANYWAY” is her signal that she’s finally going back to the core story of what happened the night before, and she usually manages to advance the core story with three or four sentences before getting lost in yet another tangent.
Have you ever read anything by Robert Jordan, namely a book from the Wheel of Time series? It presents a similar but different issue. The man was overly descriptive. Sure, he could paint a hell of a picture, but not once did I feel it necessary for him to spend entire pages describing a simple thing like a sink or the separation in a character’s hair. It’s been a few years since I read his stuff, but I’m quite sure I’m barely exaggerating.
2. Make it relatable.
There has to be a reason why people should be listening to your story. It’s boring someone goes on about something you don’t understand, especially when they give you no desire to understand. Your story has to be accessible.
You might be passionate about something, and know all the ins-and-outs about a particular hobby of yours. However, just because you’re an avid dirt biker doesn’t mean I’m going to share your enthusiasm when you tell a story about an event you participated in. Your story may impress like-minded people who enjoy those things as much as you do. However, it’s going to be completely lost on someone who doesn’t share your world. Unless if something happened like a gruesome accident or you managed to win over a bombshell, I’m most likely going to tune you out as politely as possible.
I have a co-worker who’s big into video games. He likes to go on and on about his gaming experiences. I’m not much of a gamer, but he’ll bombard me with tales filled with gamer jargon. He’s excited over it. I never know what the hell he’s talking about.
3. Try to keep your own reactions to a minimum.
Sometimes when telling a story, people can have the habit of saying things like “it was so crazy” or “oh my God” when describing events.
It’s a bit like laughing at your own jokes. Don’t give us queues on how to react. I’m not saying be emotionally detached from the story you’re telling. Quite the opposite: let your emotions drive your storytelling and give it emphasis. However, if something was “so crazy”, allow us to interpret that from your tone and your tale rather than blatantly telling us.
It also ruins the pacing and coherence of your story.
For example, a friend of mine’s stories tend to go on a little like this:
“We were getting super wasted last night, like oh my God, I was so drunk, you wouldn’t believe, and there was this guy, he was doing all these shots, it was so crazy, and I was like damn, seriously he drank so much, it was nuts, seriously.”
4. Watch your tone of voice.
This is arguably the most crucial point I have to make. The content of your story could be engaging, relatable, and something truly amazing that I really should hear. However, none of that matters if your audience can’t stand listening to you.
Listening to someone monotone is terrible. Having to do it for more than thirty seconds makes me want to ram a drill through my ear into my brain.
On the other hand, if you’re too “enthusiastic” all the time, it can be exhausting. Don’t scream at your audience or talk so fast as if you were trying to win a race. I knew one girl who could talk your ears off, and trying to keep up with a word she said was likely to leave you feeling drained. She never took pauses in her speech, and the longer she spoke, the louder and faster she became until I thought she’d pass out.
Pace yourself. Tell your story efficiently, but also coherently and in a way that’s easy to listen to.
5. Know when you’re boring us.
Sometimes, a story you thought was good may not get the attention you think it deserves. Perhaps you realize mid-story that people aren’t too into it. Maybe it’s not good timing, maybe nobody’s in the mood for a story, or maybe they’re just simply not enjoying what you have to say.
Whatever. Don’t take it personally. Take the hints. If people are yawning, checking the time, looking away (or looking at each other impatiently), realize they’re only listening to you out of politeness and they’d kindly wish you’d shut up. Do so.
Being good at storytelling can be an important and versatile quality. Keep these tips in mind when you find yourself with someone’s ear. Stay focused, and don’t be dull.