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Storytelling ideas and tips #2

These are notes from George Saunders book - A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. He focuses on writing, but I find his approach and suggestions spot-on for storytelling.

How do we create and maintain our bond with the listener?

The first aim as a storyteller is to bring the listener along as you tell your story. To have  your listener keep listening all the way through the story to the end of the story.

One advantage in telling your stories to an audience is that you can often feel if your listeners are staying with you. Even better, in a Story Circle you can get direct feedback from your listeners.

When we start to tell our story the listener begins to create an open set of expectations in her mind. And as the story unfolds, the teller sets up expectations and provides resolutions to these expectations. These are the pulses of the story.

As the story begins the storyteller is like a juggler. He throws pins in the air.  
“As I stumbled into the bar, I was still bleeding from the cut in my head.”

The listener is aware that these pins are in the air.  And as the story progresses the teller catches those pins.It is possible to think of your story as a series of such expectation/resolution moments.

“My girlfriend looked at me from behind the bar. A flash of anger raced across her face.”


And as you tell your story the path of the story begins to narrow.
“I could almost hear her thinking, “Damn, third-time this week”


Note: Some of these tips will be unattributed, direct quotes from George Saunders book - others I have paraphrased or mixed in with my own ideas. It is a mosh pit. I strongly invite you to read his book. Sit at the feet of the master.

Storytelling ideas and tips #1


Think in terms of scenes: distinct locations where something happens. Scenes distinguish a story from an essay, or op-ed, or sermon. Let your audience do the meaning-making. Guide them to it, with your edits and presentation, but don't unpack it for them too much.


Make it clear that you are the main character. This is about you: a true story as you experienced it. And you can leave out anything you don't want to share or that doesn’t serve your story. No one is going to fact-check you.

  1. Start in the action and set up the stakes:

    Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, begins not with her buying a map, or all the events that led up to the hike, but instead, 38 days into the hike, just after one of her hiking boots has fallen irretrievably down a ridge.

  2. Write/craft your story to be delivered, not just read.

  3. Use dialogue as much as possible, especially to tell the audience things that would otherwise be exposition.

  4. Count on your voice and delivery to do the adjectival heavy-lifting. No need to say, "he stammered..." if you can deliver it, "H-he-hello!" And you don’t need adverbs! Really! Basically none!

  5. Think about what your story is about (themes), beyond what happens (plot, facts). This helps keep you streamlined and edit out the stuff that may be good, but isn't necessary.

These are just a few basic rules of thumb (and there are always good reasons to break rules, so feel free). Especially if this is your first story, think about how tips might help give shape and stakes to your story, take what's helpful, and ignore the rest.



Thank you to Rebecca Anderson of Gilead Chicago for many of these tips.

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