I believe few people truly understand the role of the storyteller. There is much written about the art of storytelling, but few people devote a single line to the person behind the curtain. Telling stories is becoming more and more important in any organization, but we still don’t understand what are the skills involved in it. If we stick with the strict definition, a storyteller is: “One who tells or writes stories” or “a person who tells stories“. These definitions say nothing about the actual talents and secrets used by the storyteller.
For starters, one who tells a story employs a different talent than one that writes a story. In ancient times, many stories use to be communicated orally. These communities either had no written alphabet or access to it was restricted to a very small elite. Knowledge was there communicated orally in story form. The storyteller had to have incredible delivery skills, a potent voice, a sense of rhythm, etc.
As writing became more mainstream, a new talent was forged, written communication. This differs extensible from the oral tradition and requires a very different skill set. Writing allows for deep thought and has no room for improvisation. Spoken words last a moment, written words will last forever.
Nowadays we tend to consider both one and the same, as illustrated by the definition. Nevertheless, they are not. While someone can have a masterful domain of the written word, they might be utterly helpless when it comes to crafting a moving story. A minstrel or a bard, on the other hand, is also at a lost when it comes to preserving a story if they don’t command a powerful writing talent. Actually, this preservation problem is one of the reasons why most stories tend to be very simple in form. The crowd, specially in the medieval ages, tended to be lowly educated, which meant that, sophisticated combinations of words and terms would make the story incomprehensible and would render its communication useless.
One of the best things a storyteller can posses is mastery over both of them.
One of the rare talents of a master storyteller is observation. Without good observation skills, a story will most definitely fail its goal, let it be inform, inspire or command. Observation is critical for several reasons. The first one is because it enables effective story hunting. One common question I get is where should people look for stories. It’s a very tough question. The reason is, because the answer is very broad. Stories are everywhere. At home, at the cafe, at the subway, etc. It’s the power of observation what can transform something that might be a usual interaction for most, into a compelling story that can be share with an audience.
Another reason why observing is so important for a storyteller is because of the delivery process. Despite what many think, stories aren’t learn by heart. There is always a fair degree of improvisation that goes into them. This is what I tend to call the modulation bandwidth, or the ice cream topping. It tends to be as high as 20% of the story. This modulation band is what transforms a good story into a great story. The storyteller needs to keep the story in sync with the audience. The only way to do this is via direct observation of the audience. Reading faces and the overall body language is essential for this. With experience, you grow use to identify different profiles within the audience and you take care to please each one of them at every step. Without any modulation, without the improvisation, this wouldn’t be possible. This is also the reason why digital storytelling is so hard.
Highly connected with observation is the talent for empathy. You might be extremely observant of your surroundings but if you can’t feel empathy for others, it will be extremely hard to achieve effective story hunting and/or story modulation skills. Empathy is all about commanding a deep knowledge of human behavior and psychology. The observant storyteller is capable of detecting joy or distress on someone’s recollection of an event. Based on their empathy and knowledge of human behavior they can extrapolate what makes those people tick. They learn what the audience is expecting, what are their fears, what has happened before, what they expect from the future. Essentially the storyteller needs to x-ray their emotions so he can deliver a highly targeted story.
There is no point on hunting stories if you don’t know why they work. Have you ever asked yourself why does that rumor about that colleague of yours is still circulating? Have you ever wondered why the IT guys seem so distrustful about management? Those situations smell of story and the storyteller needs to understand why the story resonates with such audience.
Finally, not only does the storyteller needs to have observation skills to detect the smell of story, empathy to understand why it works under that context and writing skills to document it. He or she requires great powers for delivery. The delivery is not only about the modulation with the audience, but also your own movement. The storyteller needs to know how to move around the stage, when to pause, when to scream, when to sit down. How should he or she dress and why, when should they approach the audience in close quarters, how to setup the room for better access to the audience. It was told that Steve Jobs would go over all the settings of the venue, including lighting, stage decoration, temperature, etc. before his big speeches No wonder why Jobs was such a great storyteller.
All in all, good storytellers are very rare. Funny enough, many of the talents we’ve highlighted above normally come together. Empathy and observation come hand in hand. Good observation affects delivery and experience fine tunes it. Empathy also enhances the story hunting abilities, while experience can bring great writing skills. You want to have a storyteller in your organization? Make sure you don’t just stick with a funny title like Community Manager. Make sure you find someone with commanding talents in all of the previous areas.
This post and other examples are the reason why I’m writing a book on the topic. If you’re interested in collaborating or showcasing your own stories in the book, follow the newsletter and become a supporter.