Archive for the ‘Telling stories’ Category

The only way I will care about your story is if you make me care. You can’t expect your reader or audience to care unless you make it happen. You are in control. You create the emotional link. Think of three basic steps.

1. Your idea

Your story can be stand-alone or it can be illustrating a point. Either way, the basic idea is one that your readers or audience can relate to. It seems obvious. A group of women with small children will relate to a story about toilet training but a group of business men will think that a waste of time.

Let’s look at those businessmen. Are they entrepreneurs? Franchisees? Local business? International? Well established?  Focused on a product or a service? In other words you need to know more about this audience as you formulate your ideas. Define as precisely as you can the concept of what this audience is looking for. What is their primary interest? What are they hungry to know more about?

Once you can state what they are hungry for you have found your basic idea.

2. Your perspective

You are speaking or writing about this topic or idea because other people want a piece of the experience and knowledge you have. Experience and knowledge add up to an educated perspective. Some people may have the knowledge – they may have read lot about it. Some people may have hands-on experience but feel they lack the theoretical background that would give them a wider understanding.

Your perspective melds these two together to  unite the best in both those worlds. And you have stories and anecdotes from your experience to bring this to life. Every point you make you will be illustrated by a carefully chosen story from your experience. This is the story that vividly adds context and meaning to your basic idea.

Your  story or anecdote and your perspective are closely linked. The story supports your idea and your perspective – it it doesn’t do this, then pick another story.

3. Your words

Once you’ve found an idea that will draw people in and a perspective that offers your unique knowledge and experience you can start building your story to give that idea depth and meaning. A story is built from words. Try to use simple direct words wherever that is possible.

Tell your story through the senses. What do you see in the story – a landscape, a streetscape, a room? What components can you see? Trees, parked cars, a bookshelf crammed full of books?

What can you hear in the story – bird song, the screech of brakes, heavy metal music? Is there the smell of cedar, garbage or furniture polish? Do you feel the wind, the elevator button or the smooth leather chair? Can you taste the tomato in the sandwich, the popcorn, the repulsion of milk turned sour?

All the senses draw people into your story, bringing your idea to life and making your perspective real to audience or readers. and we haven’t even started on the immediacy of dialogue.

So, to make people care about what you have to say choose and hone your idea with care, present it through the lens of your own knowledge and experience and spend time selecting the words that will bring it to life.



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To my huge  delight, this blog is being read around the world – in 72 countries at last count.

Wow! Thank you for liking it enough to pass it along. Its purpose is to help you discover and share great stories and anecdotes.

But this amazing geographic distribution started me thinking about all the ancient stories from the different countries and continents. About the ancient stories from your birth country. Have you heard them or read them? Do you understand the meaning of them? Do you share them in your writing, your classes, your speeches?

Whether you go to the library to find them or listen to elders pay attention to your birth country stories because they are your heritage – they are a wealth you are entitled to. As you read or hear them imagine yourself back a hundred or a thousand years, in a village, or a hunting party gathered around a fire. Someone told that story once for the first time.

What was the purpose behind it? Was it purely for entertainment or did it make a point or teach a lesson? sometimes I think the best stories came from mothers teaching their children.

Once upon a time there was a mother whose little son loved to play on the banks of the nearby river. It was a big and powerful river, subject to flooding, and the mother was afraid her little son might fall in and get carried away. She could have said,

“Jimmy! If you go near that river one more time I’m going to give you a smack!”

But no, she curled up with him one night as he was getting sleepy and told him a story about a boy who was lured away by the river people and made into their slave for a hundred years…” It was a scary and fanciful story and Jimmy was very wary of the river after that. In time he told it to his own children, and so on.

That’s all very well, of course, but what relevance do these old stories have to today’s world?

In this country there are stories about bears who can change into human form and back again. Oh, come on! Genetically speaking this is not possible. But think about it allegorically. How many times have you dealt with someone in the business or professional world and they turned out to be quite different than you thought.

You thought they were big and important and you were a bit scared of dealing with them, but they turned out to be valuable friends and allies. Or the other way around. You thought the person was your friend, helpful and kind. Suddenly one day they let you down badly, betrayed you even.

Yes, your ancestors lived through that kind of experience too. They are reaching out to you.

Where do you fit in this ancestral story chain? You remember and pass on the old stories and you create your own new ones to teach and entertain.

Story telling is important.

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Anecdotes are the workhorses of the communications world. If you can’t afford the time, space, energy for a full story you can fall back on its lesser cousin, the anecdote.

People often use an anecdote and call it a story. That’s OK – the story police won’t be coming after them. That’s because everyone is so relieved to find an anecdote or story in the middle of a whole mess of facts and data that they don’t care which it is.

We use both stories and anecdotes to give context and meaning to information. That they also provide a little light relief is an added bonus. They give the reader or listener a moment to catch up to the flow and sort through the facts, arranging them to best effect in their unique brain.

But the primary purpose of anecdotes is to shine the light of meaning, context and relevance on cold facts. They answer the unspoken questions – Why should I be interested? Why should I care? What does this mean to me?

So a strong anecdote has as its central character someone who the reader or listener can relate well to. It might be someone who has a lot in common with your reader or listener, or someone who has a need that will be met by the use of the information. If you’re talking to doctors you might have a doctor as central character or a small child who is going to benefit from the application of the new information.

Take the example of a new therapeutic technique. Once you’ve gone over the information lighten the moment with an anecdote – how you got the idea while running for a bus, or after ten years of searching for a solution to a totally different problem. Or tell the story of one small patient who used to have to miss days of baseball practice as they spent time in hospital for treatment, but who can now come in weekly on an outpatient basis.

The trick is to show real people doing real things, facing problems and coming up with solutions. Their characteristics are immediately recognizable. They act logically although they may  make mistakes along the way. You give them some dialog and they speak in real, everyday words, not in bureaucratese or jargon.  With luck you can find a touch of humor and emotion to give extra sparkle to the tale.

And you know what? Long after people have stored the information away in long-term memory they will find pleasure in your stories and anecdotes.


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Let’s take an ordinary bland event and build it into an anecdote that would stand proud in a longer story or in a speech.

Basic anecdote: Mother in the kitchen drops a dish. Daughter comes in to see what the noise is. (At this point we won’t make it a touching or a humorous anecdote.)

The elements are mother, daughter, kitchen, dish and crash. Also the back story – what led up to this.

The back story sets the tone for the anecdote. Is this a stereotypical Mrs Cleaver mom who has slaved in the kitchen all day, a businesswoman late home after being stuck in traffic, an older mom starting into Alzheimers’s? Is the daughter a stereotypical bratty teen, an excited child, a middle-aged woman worried about her elderly parents?

You can set the anecdote in a ritzy kitchen, a farm kitchen, a hoarders kitchen. The dish can be precious china, full of a complete casserole meal for the family or just the dog’s water dish.

How, in a very few words, are you going to present all this? Let’s take the businesswoman mom. Tall. slim, well dressed, well made up, still in her business clothes. Impatient, annoyed, demanding.  Let’s contrast her with the excited child. Small, eager, a bit grubby after a day in playschool, happy her mom is home at last. The kitchen matches the mom, all the latest stainless steel gadgets, keeping up with the Joneses. The crash was microwaved food, spilled down the mom’s skirt, the dish upside down, supper ruined.

Pick your verbs and descriptors so that they carry weight. Let’s give the mom a name that matches her style. not Bethany or Martha. How about Gloria?

Gloria swept the toys aside with her foot, reached into the double door freezer and grabbed the package of three cheese lasagna. She rammed it into the microwave and poured herself, at last, a full glass of chardonnay. For just a second she paused to allow the wine to slide down her throat.

God, she needed that.

A smell of burning spoiled her moment of quiet. The lasagna – surely she hadn’t been dumb enough to leave the wrapper on? She lunged at the microwave and grabbed the dish, aiming to drop it into the sink where she could pull the plastic off with a minimum of mess but the sleeve of her new jacket caught on the corner and the whole dish of lasagna crashed to the floor. She gritted her teeth and swore silently.

Her daughter came running in, her shorts still grubby from the playground. She slipped on the lasagna and almost fell.

“Mommy, are you all right?”

“For crying out loud, how many times do I have to tell you? ‘Stay out of the kitchen when I’m making dinner.'”.


You could, if you wished, turn this into a touching anecdote, with the mom regretting her moment of bad temper. The writer can take it any way at all. But characters have been established that seem real and for whom we can feel some sympathy. Much of this has been accomplished by strong verbs. There’s action – you can see Gloria and even feel for her. There is detail – the double door freezer, the three cheese lasagna, the grubby shorts.


Strong characters, strong action, vivid detail – the three keys to a dynamite anecdote.

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Humor Me

I think back to the movie “Mary Poppins” where Julie Andrews sang a song with the line “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”.  In a speech or a story let your humor be the ‘spoonful of sugar’.

Let’s suppose that your story carries a message – one that you think is important for your audience to hear. A few touches of humor make the audience listen more carefully. They don’t want to miss what you say next because it might contain that delicious taste of sugar.

You don’t have to lay the humor on thick. Your audience doesn’t need to be rolling in the aisles. Your humor doesn’t have to be actual jokes – in fact it is often better that jokes are saved for another time.

So if it isn’t jokes, what is it? It could be just a funny comparison- ‘she had a purse the size of Texas’, ‘He’s so cheap that when he opens his wallet moths fly out’.

It could be an odd way of expressing a concept -‘There are lots of Russian women in tennis today. I counted fifty of them in the top ten.’

People notice these unusual turns of phrase. They smile and see others in the room smiling too, or maybe think they are the only ones in the room that ‘got it’. Either way that spoonful of sugar prepares their mind for the message.

You can also make your whole story amusing. Not funny as in a joke, but maybe with a twist at the end that makes the listener smile because it is unexpected or because the picture that has been painted of this person ending up in this situation tickles the imagination.  You don’t need to point out a moral – the listener comes to his or her own conclusion.

When you are using humor in a speech put thought into the presentation. You might want to dead pan it, trusting your audience to hear the humor with no visual cue. More likely you want to present it with a smile or a twinkle in your eye that cues your audience to anticipate something enjoyable.

Giving your audience a smile or a laugh is one of the finest gifts you can give. For some, it might be their only smile or laugh of the day. Whatever medicine you might be concealing, make that spoonful of sugar be the sweetest you can make it.

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Have you ever listened to someone tell a story and wondered ‘What was that about?’ Why are they telling this story? What exactly was the point? Others around you are left with the polite smiles that say ‘I don’t get it’. We wonder if perhaps we missed something.

Usually this polite smile reaction means that something important was omitted, that some detail that makes all the difference was left out. It could have been omitted because of the pressure of the moment or in the excitement of telling the tale. It doesn’t matter. We felt that the tale lacked punch. The words that mattered weren’t there.

To make sure that your story always comes across with full effect make sure that you have included all of the relevant details. Is it important that your listener knows that it was raining at the time or that it was your son’s birthday or that the car had just been repaired? Is it relevant that you were in a hurry or that you were angry about something or that the baby was crying? If so, make sure you tell us that.

It helps your listener get into your story if you orient them in time and place. It only takes a moment to let them know that it was first thing in the morning and you were downtown or driving over the bridge. You might want to quickly let them know what led up to this moment, how you were feeling and why, who the other characters in the story are. And you might let them know ahead of time what some of the consequences of the upcoming action could be.

Check that you have included all the telling details that will bring this story to life. You don’t have to include every single detail that you know. If it is relevant that you were driving a red Ford pickup make sure to include that. If the kind of vehicle is not at all important then skip it and focus on detail that is important.

Time spent on selecting and polishing details is time invested in making your story or anecdote come alive. It is how you make sure that your listeners will really ‘get it’.

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She was telling her story breathlessly:

“I was driving to work and this little white dog ran across the street. I swerved to avoid it and I drove into a big tree. The car wasn’t badly damaged but a tow truck came and I had to make a police report and go to the insurance people. And then I had to get three estimates for the repair and…”

All I can think of is -‘ What happened to the dog?’ We all know all that police reports, tow trucks and insurance companies follow a car accident but we don’t know what happened to the dog.

If you have a telling detail in your story follow it up so that the reader or a listener gets a sense of completion or closure.

Most stories have at least one telling detail and many have more than one. They are tiny word pictures that draw the reader into the tale and make it come alive for them. They may have no relevance to the outcome of the story so they are easy to forget when you reach your conclusion. Take a moment to check back so you don’t leave your reader or a listener wondering.

Perhaps you don’t know what happened to the dog. Then say so; don’t just leave us hanging.

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When I choose a program to watch on TV I have certain expectations. If I select a documentary I expect information, if I choose a drama I expect suspense and if I choose a sitcom I’m hoping to be entertained and to laugh.

Often, though, the documentary will include stories. If the information is about drought in sub- Saharan Africa they might show a small boy and his mother struggling to make crops grow in dried-out earth. You can see their protruding bones and feel their helplessness and the bewilderment and pain of a hungry child. The information about the results of a lack of rainfall has been driven home in a simple story that appeals to the emotions and to the humanity in each of us.

Our emotions cover such a wide range – from pleasure ( including humour and joy) to fear, including suspense, from jealousy and hate to love and tenderness. And we would have to include pity, horror, excitement and many more.

If you are working on a story, speech or anecdote, whether you want to inspire and motivate or inform make sure the reader or listener feels what you have to say. Build some suspense into the story, give the reader or a listener a taste of sadness or fear but also give them the relief of joy or humour.

Test yourself: Go through your story marking the places where you have appealed to feelings, and name the emotion. If you have not touched the feelings of the reader at least once, you have not fully engaged them.

Emotional appeal gives your story the richness of texture and dimension that makes it memorable.

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When I go out I take time to put on make up and fix my hair. Now I’m getting too old to be vain, so why do I bother? I bother because I like to make a good first impression. Who knows who I might meet today? Whoever it is I don’t want them thinking that I’m a sloppy mess; that I haven’t got it together.

It’s the same with stories (and with speeches).  We need to make a dynamite first impression. So our very first sentence has to carry a lot of freight. Here are some of the things it needs to do for you:

– grab attention

– focus the thinking of the audience or readers

– introduce the main character and perhaps the setting and other characters

– indicate the direction the story will take

– appeal to the emotion of the audience or readers

– get the audience or readers grounded in the time, place and relevance of the story

– establish the writer or speaker as the trustworthy bearer of this tale

– make the audience or readers want more

So the first sentence cannot be dull or flat. It has to offer the readers or audience a smorgasbord of intriguing facts and feelings, all within a very few words. It has to pack a wallop and make promises that you will soon fulfill. It should be carefully crafted, its words fully loaded with meaning

This is your story’s first impression, its first and best chance for “Wow”! Take full advantage of the opportunity.

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I was going to title this “Have a really good villain” but you don’t want a good villain, you want a bad one. A very bad one. There is no point in having a villain that is not very nice – he/she/it has to be bad.

A villain is any person or thing that stands in the way of you or your protagonist reaching the goal. It might be human, animal or a high mountain, wide river or severe weather.  It might be an addiction or personal handicap. It’s an obstacle. A story about a small obstacle is no fun. It can be easily overcome without raising a sweat. For your story or anecdote to be interesting the struggle has to be tough and the outcome in question right to the end. If your obstacle or villain isn’t big enough and bad enough then the whole point of the story is blunted and the interest level sags.

Here are some ideas for making the struggle tougher:

– make it clear that the villain has an important goal of his own that he needs to achieve. If you reach your goal then he can’t reach his – it’s a race.

– impose a time limit. If it can’t be done by 5 pm or by Sunday then the villain wins

– raise the ante. If the mountain is high and almost impossible, add a snowstorm. If  the river is deep, add a thunderstorm or break the dam. If the boss is verbally harassing, make it physical harassment

– throw in a little child or a dog that needs to be saved from the villain in addition to the main goal

– give your villain additional power – he doesn’t just work in a bank, he has the power to repossess your mother’s house

– if the villain is an addiction or a handicap clearly show how it affects the life of the person and his/her family

Even if it is a short personal anecdote you are telling assess the obstacle you faced and make the most of it. Build it up a bit, maybe even exaggerate (hey, it’s been done before) so that when you do finally overcome it your audience can fully savor your triumph.

You can provide a lot of satisfaction by besting a really good villain.

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