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Why learning about storytelling isn’t learning to tell a story

Everybody’s a storyteller now, aren’t they?

Brands. Corporate leaders. Content channels. Multi-platform experiences. They’ve all got a story to tell. Or at least one to sell. So it’s not surprising that we get asked to run storytelling workshops all the time. 


And sometimes people turn up thinking they’ll come out of it with the perfect story to tell. They won’t.They’ll get something much better.

Shall I tell you one of my favourite moments in a workshop? It’s after we’ve done some warm-ups, introduced ourselves, found out what we think we mean by stories. The group’s just beginning to gel and the archetypes are revealing themselves: the joker, the contrarian, the chatterbox, the diplomat.

Perhaps we’ve brainstormed all the different kinds of stories we’ve heard already on our way to the workshop. We've noted the headlines, recounted the Twitter storm, tapped through the Instagram stories, and come up with the most creative reasons why that presentation won’t be ready.

Once that’s done, I tell them. I explain that although they’ve booked on to this workshop, and it’s called Storytelling or Storytelling for Leaders or something like it - I’m not really going to help them tell a story.

Cue the uncomfortable silence.

The quality of that quiet is priceless. I hold it beyond the socially acceptable limit. And that’s the point. I’ve got their attention. Really got it.

It’s what a good storyteller does - and I’ve done it without telling a story.

I go on to explain that what I mean, which is that we’re not here to work out the “right” story to tell. We’re not at a dinner party, and we’re not on the hunt for the killer anecdote. We’re looking for what makes us listen, and how that feels and sounds.

It’s about using structure, performance, imagery, metaphor, senses, behaviour, bias, instincts, rhythm, psychology. It’s the richest seam from which any communicator can mine.

The best part? It doesn’t matter if the subject matter is a bit dry or complex, or if your audience is a tad sceptical going in. What you’ll have are the tools to make whatever you want to say something people can care about, easily understand, remember and retell (like the Nativity vs the Ten Commandments).

Now that sounds like something worth talking about, doesn’t it?