How to tell a story and enjoy doing it

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain t...

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907. See also other photographs of Mark Twain by A. F. Bradley taken in March 1907 in New York on Mark Twain Project Online. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We often use stories to illustrate a point we want to make. Storytelling is a time honored tool for passing on important information, and for demonstrating how we have come to a certain point in our lives. It can also be used to unite a community around a certain point of view. Storytelling is an ongoing process through which individuals, communities and nations construct their identity, make choices and inspire action. Each of us has a compelling story to tell that can move others.

There are three basic elements to keep in mind when you construct a story:

Challenge: What was the specific challenge faced by you, others, or your organization/community? What are or were the specific factors that created this challenge?

Choice: What was the specific choice that was made in face of this challenge? What led you or others to believe this was the best choice?

Outcome: What happened as a result of this choice? Was there a lesson learned?

Once you have the basic framework of your story, you will want to consider the factors below. These will help you build your story in a way that engages and holds the interest of your listeners:

  • Match your story to your audience

Consider the occasion and setting where you are telling the story. Is it to make a point for children? Perhaps you are trying to illustrate how your organization has effectively solved a community problem. Are you recognizing the accomplishments of someone special?  Would humor be appropriate?

  • Memorize the basics

To keep an audience engaged you need to keep the story moving. Have a clear idea of where you are going with the story. Avoid verbal trash like “um” or “y’know?”

  • Physically interact with your audience

Use words, gestures, and facial expressions to create images for your story.  You can even use visual aids if they will work in your setting. Vary the tone of your voice and make gestures that indicate what is happening. Don’t fidget, put your hands in pockets, or shift from foot to foot, though.

  • Manipulate the details

A good story is “true,” but it doesn’t have to be fact. It’s not as important to explain everything that happened as it is to create an atmosphere where listeners can fill in the blanks with their own experiences or observations. Eliminate extraneous details. Make space for your listeners to “see” the story, time to laugh, time to feel, time to reflect, time to hang on the edge of their seats for what comes next.

  • Practice before you deliver

If possible, tell your story first to friends in a small group. As you gain confidence, perform for larger, less intimate groups. Before long, you’ll think nothing of telling a story to a large room full of strangers.

If you are new to public speaking, Toastmasters offers a supportive environment to learn the basics and get some practice.

If you would like to expand your story telling experience, Cowbird can help you do this.

Finally, read to this classic piece about storytelling from America’s greatest storyteller, Mark Twain.

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Sharon Rabb has more than 25 years of experience in fundraising and nonprofit management for both large and small organizations. She currently serves as Project Specialist for tCampaign Consultation, Inc . Rabb holds a Master Degree in nonprofit management from Notre Dame of Maryland University and wrote her thesis on Women and Philanthropy: a design for approaching female donor prospects. Read more.

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