The Five Traits of Great Storytellers
When I co-curated TEDxSeattle in 2013, I wanted each of our speakers to have their best talk ever. This was a lofty goal, given that most of them had been presenting for years. It was easy to love the speakers – they were great. But, to be of service to them, I had to do what was sometimes uncomfortable – like telling speakers they had to tell that story, the super vulnerable one. Or I had to let a speaker go, who just wasn’t ready. I even had to tell one of them to buy some new shoes (which he did). I had to commit to doing what it took to bring out their best, even when I didn’t want to say what I knew, in my heart, they needed to hear.
Throughout the year-long effort to put on an amazing show, I learned a lot about storytelling. As you read, I hope that you will find something to help you level-up your presentations such that your audience will feel the love in your story. Because that’s what it takes to inspire.
STORYTELLING IS SO HOT RIGHT NOW
The TED phenomenon in many ways reignited storytelling in our culture. The success of the TED genre is a demonstration of the power of storytelling that has evolved over the span of human existence. In some ways, it’s a return to what we have always known — humans are wired for story.
As soon as we had language, we gathered together to tell stories to fulfill our innate need to share our experiences. Communities were strengthened and maintained through stories that connected the present, past, and future. They offered security — how life began and why things happen — as well as entertainment and enchantment.
TED is a great example of the art of oral storytelling. Oral storytelling is an ancient and intimate tradition of engagement between the storyteller and the audience. The storyteller and the audience are physically close and, over the course of the tale, they develop a communal connection. The storyteller reveals and shares him or herself through the telling, and the audience reveals and shares themselves through their reception of the story. The intimacy and connection are deepened by the flexibility of oral storytelling, which allows the tale to be molded according to the needs of the audience and the location of the telling. The listeners experience the immediacy of a creative process taking place in their presence and they experience the empowerment of being part of the creative process. If we look at the oral storytelling tradition, it’s really no surprise that TED works to attract and inspire people.
WHAT MAKES A GREAT STORY
As I researched the art of storytelling, and then coached our 18 TEDxSeattle speakers, I found there were five common traits that contributed to the best talks.
Conviction is a firm belief in something. To inspire others, it’s not enough to share our belief. Like “I believe we should eat only organic food.” Simon Sinek talked about this in his great TEDx talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” People need to know WHY we believe it. They “buy the why.” They need the back story. Why do I believe we should eat organically? What life experience led me to that belief? They need to know so they can relate. No one can be convinced if they can’t relate, especially if they don’t already have a shared belief on some level. Perhaps I was ill and got healthy because of a dietary change. Whatever the reason, it’s the sharing of something deeper that provides an opening to connect with others who believe what we believe. When we think about conviction in the context of our story, it’s the why that matters.
Somewhere in our lives, most of us have been told to “just be yourself.” But, there are caveats. Be yourself, but don’t be too loud or talkative or quiet or demanding or wishy-washy. To be authentic — your true self — means showing up as an “unprotected presence.” Letting all the YOUs show up without apology. Tell your story, sing your song. Know what matters and show those parts.
When we keep our true feelings and beliefs to ourselves, we miss the opportunity to authentically relate with others. If we get to know our selves and what we really want, and if we open up and get real about it, we will live our lives from a place of deeper meaning. We will draw people in and be drawn to people who believe what we believe.
It takes courage to see ourselves as we truly are. It takes courage to let ourselves be seen. It takes vulnerability. Most of us find it hard to be vulnerable outside of our intimate relationships. Vulnerability is synonymous with weakness in our culture. But, then we’re told to be brave, which I find odd. Bravery without vulnerability is bravado. Pretentious, swaggering and false strength.
We don’t want to look foolish, so we avoid vulnerability. It’s too risky. But, to avoid it is to become defended. We become impenetrable. We repel, rather than attract people and ideas. I’m not saying that we need to tell our deepest, darkest secrets to just anyone, but we need to be willing to take emotional risks if we hope to connect with others and enlist them in our cause. If when we show up as our authentic selves and speak our truths, when we drop our defenses and get vulnerable, we create the connections between people and ideas that drive innovation, creativity and change.
4. CONNECTION (EMPATHY)
Putting yourself in another person’s shoes and striving to understand that person’s experience is an empathetic act. Empathy creates connection. I lost my mom over 30 years ago, when I was very young. I still grieve for her. When someone relates to me from their own experience of loss, I feel understood and I understand a part of them — I feel connected. We cannot feel empathy without knowing someone’s story. We cannot receive empathy — that true feeling that people get us, relate to us, and are like us — without sharing our story.
Empathy makes the world a smaller place. It connects us and makes us feel less weird, less singular. In a world that is looking for connection, it’s a tie that binds. If we infuse our story with our true feelings, we’ll foster empathy and incite our audience to follow our lead.
What turns a following into a phenomenon? Consider TED. Hundreds of millions of people spreading ideas because one person believed in the power of storytelling. Martin Luther King, Jr. started a movement with a story based on four simple words: I have a dream. These are two examples of magic, that thing we can’t put our finger on, that make all the difference.
Magic isn’t something you can control, but you can create the conditions for magic to appear. One effective way to create those conditions is to leave some space in your talk that allows your audience to fill in the blanks. Don’t tell them every little detail — they will get bored anyway. Or incorporate something surprising into your talk — a gesture, a phrase, a prop, a photo — that reinforces your message in a unique way. Martin Luther King, Jr. used cadence and that famous repeated phrase. Allow yourself to be less than 100% certain how something will land and watch the magic unfold.
One last thing…
Your primary job as a presenter is to make your audience feel safe so that they can relax and be carried away on the journey of your story. The more you know your story, the more natural you will sound and the safer your audience will feel. So, practice. Practice aloud, record yourself, practice in front of a mirror and a friendly audience. Practice so much that you can wing it without losing any of your messages.