This tool is inspired in part by US radio host Ira Glass. I was listening to an interview with him in which he was describing how This American Life staff decide which stories are worth going on the air. To me, a longtime listener, it was an intriguing question – which stories are the most likely to grab (the staff’s) attention, from the dozens of pitch ideas the show gets every week? According to him, TAL stories share four fundamental characteristics:
1. they involve characters dealing with a conflict,
2. the conflict often raises bigger and somewhat universal questions,
3. there’s tension, which builds as the story unfolds
4. and a surprising plot, often characterized by at least one unexpected twist.
He noted that the most gripping stories often feature people changing, and lead listeners to a surprising thought about the world. The structure is also pretty clear: First, the storyteller sets the stage, the conflict unfolds/tension builds, AND THEN… there’s an unexpected twist, which leads to a new status quo or a lesson learned.
Lots of us have reason to come up with innovative ways of telling our story. People who raise money have to craft a compelling narrative for donors. Community organizers have to know what stories move the people most impacted by an issue. Even restaurant marketing managers tell stories about the unique niche their restaurant inhabits in local culinary ecology. With this tool, the idea is to practice incorporating techniques of good storytelling, like an unexpected “twist.”
The Story “Twist”
- Gain insight into good storytelling techniques
- Get practice telling stories
- Greater self-awareness as a storyteller
- 100 minutes
- Chart paper or dry erase board
How It’s Done
Pick a compelling story from your life to tell in front of the group. I find the stories most likely to be relevant cross-culturally (I can tell when all eyes are locked on me instead of phones/doodle pads) are those that involve me being surprised or humbled, and that, while I may hint at where the story’s headed, are somehow surprising to the listener as well. I’ve also found that dramatizing the story as much as is appropriate for that group (a lot of drama for children, less for bored teenagers, and somewhere in between for many adults) also deepens the story’s impact. I’ve learned a lot by telling the same story to different groups and varying the pacing, my use of pauses, gestures, much as stand-up comics try out alternate ways of telling the same joke.
Tell the story.
Afterwards, ask the group to get into pairs and to notice what was effective about this story. “What did I do that drew you in? What parts of the story most caught your attention?”
Harvest their responses, offering the observation that many compelling stories have similar components, like universal themes, identifiable characters, a conflict, suspense or tension (“what will happen??”) and a surprising twist. Offer examples from your story that they might have missed. Also invite them to consider why you told this story; what was your goal as the storyteller? What values or what lesson were you trying to communicate? Were you trying to create a specific relationship with the group?
Then, ask them to think about the structure of the story. What happened first? How did the story build – and what did it build towards?
1. Once Upon a Time… [Setting the Stage]
2. …But what they/we didn’t know was…. [Tension]
3. AND THEN…. [The Twist]
4. Finally, …. [The Resolution/Lesson Learned]
Now have them spend 15 minutes individually writing notes for a 4- to 7-minute story they could tell the group. Invite them to think of stories that they enjoy telling, and that might have included a personal transformation. Have them consider the lesson they might want to communicate or a goal for using this story. “Try to fit your story to the four-step structure.”
Return to the large group, first asking them how that went. “Which step was the most difficult? The easiest?” Then ask for examples, writing them up next to each step. Invite advice for participants who aren’t sure about what might be their “twist.”
Now explain that they’ll each have another 10 minutes for writing before telling their story.
After the writing time, form groups of three and give each person 10 minutes total to tell their story and receive feedback from the other two participants.
Invite them to focus their feedback on some of the following elements of good storytelling:
- Use of Dramatic Tension & Unexpected “Twists”
- Body Language (eye contact, tone, facial expressions, gestures, use of props)
- Pacing (speed, pauses)
- Emotional Expression (laughter, rage, frowning, shock, confusion)
- Structure (beginning, middle, end)
- Use of Details (the weather, time of day, colors, scenery)
Once they’re done, have them return to the large group and invite sharing on their storytelling experiences. To close the activity, get them to pair up and share a new storytelling technique they want to use next time. (Alternatively: Invite them to share while dancing!)
This tool is adapted in part from one often used in Training for Change’s Advanced Training of Trainers, which I’ve attended as a participant twice.