Next time you have the chance … Go!
- Grab a sleeping bag.
- Hop in your car.
- Drive until the lights in your rearview mirror no longer glow like ten thousand push notifications.
- Lay out your sleeping bag under the open sky.
- Wait until it’s dark, and look up.
What do you see?
The three unmistakable dots of Orion’s Belt? The horns of Aries lowered and ready to charge? Ursa Major emerging from hibernation?
You see, for one, that you are in league with some Grecian who, thousands of years ago, looked up at that same starry sky and connected the dots. If that isn’t a parable about the shared human experience, well … maybe I need to lay off the edibles.
You'll also feel something more powerful than time and space. Way back in the day, Zorba the Greek stared at the stars long enough that he saw a bull. Then he ambled down to the agora and told some of his buddies. And they told their friends. And as a result, a few thousand years later, we’re still telling stories about a bull, a belt, and a bear.
And that’s the power of storytelling.
Now just because Zorba spun a good tale, it doesn’t mean we need to crown him King of Westeros. The matter at hand isn’t the storyteller. It’s the act of telling. Do it well, and what you say will carry weight long, long after the words leave your lips.
A great story has the power to stretch time and bend the cosmos. Likewise, an awful story can blend a moment into a kale-green smoothie of existential dread. If you've ever been stuck at a cocktail party, backed into a corner during a going-nowhere-fast story, you can relate.
So if storytelling is an arrow in humanity's quiver, how do you keep your aim on the target – rather than pointed at your foot?
Storytelling, like any muscle, requires regular exercise to reach its full potential. But just like you wouldn't lift weights without a spotter, leaning on a storytelling sherpa can make all the difference in setting your words aloft.
I had two guest sherpas for last week's Audience Builders conversation on Twitter Spaces. Arvid Kahl (The Bootstrapped Entrepreneur) and Bilal Zaidi (Creator Lab) shared their own storytelling tool kits, with tips anyone can use to captivate an audience.
Study the classics
Bilal has interviewed hundreds of incredible founders, makers, and do-ers on his podcast Creator Lab. To recognize real lives that make for great stories, he has adopted the mythology template of great storytelling.
Bilal's go-to source, Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, unpacks the core elements of a thrilling narrative. It worked for Homer. It worked for George Lucas. And it can work for you, too.
Frame it up
Bilal shared a clever interview framing tactic to prompt a great story. When talking to Jim McKelvey, founder of Square, Bilal could have asked:
How does it feel to be a billionaire?
Instead, he tweaked that question and asked:
Take me back to the moment you realized you were a billionaire.
The contrast is the difference between showing and telling.
Arvid's audience follows his unfolding journey as an indie hacker, from bootstrap to success. His advice, then, is to live the story first, then tell it.
Lived experience provides all the raw material you need for great stories. Provided, that is, that you take enough chances to push your arc to unexpected places.
You don't always have to stick the landing, either. Remember, audiences learn just as much from your failures as they do from your success.
Be the learner
Campbell readers and classic cinema buffs alike will recognize this narrative trope: an eager student seeks out the guidance of a wizened old master to learn the way.
Tropes endure because they work. In this case, the audience identifies with the novice and follows her journey along the path.
So in telling your story, cast yourself as the learner. Be open about what you don't know, why and how you hope to learn it, and share your discoveries along the way.