How to tell a good story

How to tell a good story

By Barbara Speed 19/02/15

From podcasts to story nights, telling true stories is all the rage at the moment. But how do you tell a good one? Barbara Speed asks producers from Radiolab, Invisibilia, The Moth and more for their tips...

Choosing your story

If you’re choosing a story from your own life, it’s important to think about how experiences affected you, rather than how dramatic or exciting might seem. Meg Bowles, a senior producer at podcast and event company The Moth, says the best stories are about internal drama: ”I tell people to consider moments from their life that changed them. These can be big moments or seemingly small ones, but ultimately they’re the ones that caused them to change how they see the world”.

The numbers game

Sometimes, storytelling is about finding exciting true stories outside your own experiences. Lulu Miller, former producer of Radiolab and co-creator of Invisibilia, always looks in as many places as possible: “Call up as many people as you can in a day. Dozens if possible. Have quick conversations; get a sense of their story - often that process will turn up beautiful and shocking and underreported stories. I try to leave every interview by asking the person for two more people to talk to.”

Bringing it alive

A story isn’t just about what happened - it’s about how it happened; what it looked and felt and sounded like. Meg helps storytellers shape and structure their stories before a Moth show, and she says a common mistake is to just list the events in a story. Her job is to help them “paint the scenes - to say how it felt, both physically and emotionally at every step.” The more your listeners know about what happened, the more they can relate to it.

Keep them interested

Often, storytellers find it easy to come up with an intriguing beginning and a resonant ending, but get bogged down somewhere in the middle. Lulu says careful pruning and a focus on clarity are key: “The middle is this constant process of removal - cutting away the extraneous ideas that are bogging down the piece; and addition - putting in things to make it clear”. In general, she says the best tactic in storytelling is surprise: “never do a story without some”.

Meg says a necessary ingredient for a gripping story are “stakes” - a story where there’s everything to lose or gain. “Stakes are important because they tell the listener why this story is important for you to tell, and why they should be invested in it.”   

Don’t waste words

Another crucial part of keeping the reader engaged is the language you use - or don’t use. Joanna Yates, founder of storytelling club Spark London, says a common mistake she notices at her events is over explaining; “using lots of words where a few could do.” 

Have a listener in mind

Know your audience - try and picture their reactions and what they would enjoy. Lulu says she has three types of listener in mind when she makes her show: the people she interviewed (“I want to make sure I can look them in the eye afterward), “Jan in the mini-van” and “the edgy high-schooler”. It’s about identifying who you want to reach, and the best ways to reach them. If you’re telling a story live, it can just be about responding to your audience’s faces - pause if they’re laughing, throw in a joke if they’re bored.

Make the most of your voice

The unique attraction of true, live storytelling events or podcasts is the use of a human voice to tell a true human story. Joanna says she’s noticed that storytellers can find it hard to be open about their stories -  “it can be scary to talk about ourselves, and not very British” - but the truest stories are often the best. Lulu, meanwhile, says the voice itself can add a huge amount to the story: “There is a whole world of emotion that can be conveyed in breath and tone…. It’s incredibly dynamic and powerful.”

Be prepared to adapt

Matt Locke, founder of The Story conference (held on 20 February this year) and the former head of Multiplatform Commissioning at Channel 4, says he’s noticed changes in audiences’ reaction to stories over the past few years, perhaps because of the rise in digital media. However, he says the storytellers he admires most are those who take this as a challenge, not a rebuttal: “The people who I find really inspiring are the storytellers who have a very consistent aesthetic approach to their storytelling, but are continually curious about the audience and about how to relate to them.”


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Image by Dave Bledsoe via Flickr under a creative commons license.

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