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Thoughts On Storytelling In Social Situations

This article is about the social skill of telling stories in day-to-day conversations with people you're being friendly with. It's not about how to weave a tale about your product during a sales presentation, or how to tell a good folktale around a campfire. Those are slightly different situations. Here's my first thought:

The importance of storytelling is sometimes overemphasized

I've seen storytelling written about as a core skill for connecting to people. I've read social skills forums where a poster will ask for storytelling advice, and I get a sense they think if they can cultivate that talent it will be their ticket to being interesting and getting everyone to like them. Sure, all else being equal it's better to be a good storyteller than not, but it's hardly essential. There are plenty of other ways to be likable.

The reason it's not as important is it really doesn't come up that much. If you were to map out an average person's social interactions you'd see they'd only spend a tiny fraction of that time engaged in true, "Did I ever tell you about that crazy time in Mexico?"-style storytelling. As I'm writing this I'm thinking of some really fun, engaging people I know, and struggling to remember the last time I heard them tell a story. Mostly people use more back and forth communication. They talk about mutual interests and people they know, discuss ideas, joke around, fill each other in one what's new in their lives, and so on.

There are two reasons storytelling is relatively rare. One is that unless they've lived really colorful or unique lives, most people only have a few genuinely interesting longer stories to tell. Not to sound too depressing or existential, but most of what happens in our lives, even if it's fun or rewarding at the time, isn't particularly out of the ordinary or story worthy. Even when funny or thought-provoking things do occur, they can usually be summed up in a sentence or two. It's much rarer to have a whole string of entertaining incidents play out, enough that it would take a few minutes to recount them all later on. That's why if you've known someone a while you'll see they often bring out the same handful of stories again and again, even though they may have happened decades ago.

The second reason is something I said already. For the most part people like their conversations to be more interactive and give and take. It's a special occasion when we put that preference on hold and give someone the floor for a longer period of time. We tend to get impatient when someone else has been talking for too long, unless what they're saying is really compelling. Even if someone has a ton of good stories, they can be seen as a conversation monopolizer if they bring them up too often and are always grabbing the spotlight.


With that out of the way, here are a few ideas about how to improve your storytelling on the odd occasion that you do need to use it:

Be aware of why you want to tell the story

If you're going to tell a story it should be because you think your audience will be genuinely get something out of it - they'll be entertained or learn an important life lesson or whatnot. To put this point another way, if you're just telling the story because you want to brag about yourself odds are your anecdote isn't going to be very good, and people will pick up on your intent and think you're trying too hard.

Ask yourself if your story really needs to be a story

Sometimes people will try to turn little incidents into full-fledged stories, when they would honestly work better as a sentence or two of, "So I saw something funny on the way to work..." If you try to stretch little occurrences like these into complete narratives they can feel padded and like you're working too much to be an entertainer and make something out of nothing.

Even when a longer series of things happen, sometimes it will still work better in a summed up form. A good story has to have all its details. If you give people a recap it feels unsatisfying and they immediately want more information. With other stories the recap is pretty much all there is to it, and if you delve into it further it feels like you're just giving a bunch of supporting details to a point you've already made. Sometimes a series of events seem like they would make for a good story, but for whatever reason it turns out they just aren't interesting to hear about.

Be careful about certain topics

It's not that you should never tell any stories about these topics, but you've got to think twice about whether the people you're with will be into it. Some subjects have more potential to be boring and rambling, or make you seem self-absorbed or douchey. Be cautious when telling stories about:

Don't overly workshop your story

There's nothing wrong with quickly looking at your story and thinking about how you could tighten it up or emphasize the best parts. I also think it's fine to give it few test runs by telling it in various ways and noting which parts people respond to the best. However, the story will start to come off as fake if you tinker with it too much to make it conform to a set of ideal storytelling guidelines. Like if you've got a quirky Halloween party story and you're dissecting it to try to identify its core themes and conflicts, you're probably overdoing it. The best anecdotes often don't need to be toyed with. Sometimes real life serves up a situation that's as entertaining and well-structured as anything a person could purposely write. In those cases the best thing to do is just straightforwardly retell what happened and let the material speak for itself.

Consider your audience

This is really basic advice. A story that's interesting to one group of people may seem totally boring and pointless, or tacky and offensive, to another. Or if you can tell the same story to different types of people, you may have to vary how your perform it. You might have to drop some slang and jargon, explain background concepts the listeners don't know, or gloss over or PG-ify certain details.

If you've already launched into your story it's important to keep an eye on the audience as well. Are they hanging on your every word, or do they look like they're waiting for their turn to start speaking again? If it's the latter, you may need to skip to the good stuff or even say, "Ha ha, actually don't worry about it. Now that I'm telling it, this story's not as interesting as I thought it was."

If the story is longer, get some sort of permission to tell it first

If your anecdote is short you don't need anyone's go ahead to bring it up, but if it's longer it's courteous to get everyone's okay first. That way you don't accidentally trap everyone into listening to you, while they're not sure how long you'll be speaking or where things are going. You just need to say something quick and simple like, "Do you guys want to hear about the time when..." Or you could just bring up the topic, and if everyone leans forward eagerly you can take that as your go ahead.

Start with a hook

Another standard piece of advice that I didn't come up with myself. Unless the juicy details of the story are going to become apparent immediately, don't just launch into it without any introduction. Give a quick set up like, "So my friends and I met the strangest person last Friday..."

Be succinct

A common storytelling mistake is to include too much extraneous, irrelevant information or go off on tangents. Even if the extra details are enjoyable, the overall story may still be better off without them. Again, your friends are being generous by surrendering the floor to you, so don't keep it longer than you have to. If someone is putting their story into a book or telling it on stage they can get away with stretching it out, since that's what the audience signed up for and the material is going to be above average. It doesn't work that way in more casual social situations.

Everything you mention should be relevant to the main narrative. Like, if two of your cousins were with you during the events you're recounting, you don't need to go into detail about their personalities. Similarly, you probably don't need to give a ton of background information to set the story up. Say as little as you need to to establish the scene.

If you're in the story play up your foibles and human side

Some stories are retelling something you heard or witnessed, and you're not really a part of it. If you are involved in the story it's usually more entertaining and relatable if you mention the all the dumb, unsmooth things you did. You don't have to be totally self-deprecating or falsely modest, but at least show you handled the situation like a normal person and not a wise-cracking action hero. If something surreal happened to you while you were traveling, point out how you never would have gotten into that situation in the first place if you'd had better judgment. If your story has a bragging element to it, this helps balance it out. Like if you're a guy recounting how you picked up a woman at a bar mention the bits of the conversation where you were feeling nervous and intimidated by her and said something amusingly awkward.

Any performance skills you have will obviously help

You're either going to have prior experience with these or not. The first 'skill' is being comfortable being on 'stage' and the center of attention. Even in smaller groups people often get flustered when it hits them that everyone's eyes are on them. The second set of skills are things like being able to speak clearly, act out individual characters and do funny voices, or use timing and pauses effectively. Don't be too hammy though.

Don't perform your story in a rehearsed, 'canned' way

Every time you tell a story it should be a little different. Of course you'll have the same plot points you want to hit each time, but the actual retelling should be off the top of your head. It comes off as odd if you tell the story like a rote performance.