Monday, June 25, 2012

The art of storytelling

The other day I was listening to a friend tell a story to some other mates – a tale I had heard before – and about half way through I was suddenly struck by the realisation: “this person just cannot tell anecdotes".
Every moment where he should have paused for effect he rushed on, where there was no natural pause, he paused, where he should have added a bemused comic face to match the incredulousness of the story, he instead just kept a passive expression. Come the end everyone laughed, because that’s what you’re supposed to do when someone tells a story that’s begun with the preface that this is a tale for your enjoyment.

But the story could have been so much funnier, I thought, if someone who could tell stories had been in charge. (Not saying I could definitely have done better, but I like to think I could).

When someone tells an anecdote they are usually commanding a group of people’s close attention – perhaps just one other, perhaps 500, usually no more than 10 though, often close friends. Under all these circumstances there is a pressure to deliver a return on the time investment they are giving you.

Yet, using that time and opportunity well is an art and skill that few possess, certainly not in any strong capacity, but we all engage in it, and it’s a social skill that can set you apart.

We all know this: we all know people – friends, family, colleagues – who when they begin a story, comic or otherwise, we starting zoning out, listening merely out of politeness, waiting for the punch line or resolution so we can laugh politely and then get back on with whatever we were doing. 

Others, however, who begin a tale and will command our full attention because we know they will tell it with panache, wit, warmth and verve, so even if it isn’t even that funny or interesting, it will be worthy of our attention because we are lift enlivened by their story telling charm.

I think it should be a job requirement: Tell us an anecdote: I bet you can learn a lot about someone from the story they pick and, more importantly, how they tell it.

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