- Michael Thompson
“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.”
I don’t accept the entire gospel of Steve Jobs. But when it comes to the words above, I couldn’t agree more. Storytellers were viewed as community leaders in the past as they sat around the fire entertaining and educating their people about the worries and wonders of the world.
And the same holds true today.
If you can learn how to tell your story in a way that makes people want to follow your flag — or better yet, carry it with you — there’s little you can’t do.
Stories are the great human connector. There is no stronger bridge. Memorable storytellers come in all shapes and sizes. But when you clear and smoke and noise, the best ones do one thing really well — they’ve mastered the sticky mix of bravery and vulnerability.
If you can let people see you’re the type of person who faces challenges and is strong enough to realize you can’t do it alone, it’s only a matter of time before your own stories begin to fly.
Growing up as a shy kid with a severe stutter, I’ve witnessed first-hand how transformational learning to tell personal stories can be. At first, I was scared to write them and even more petrified to share them. But they not only helped me find my people, after only a few years of honing the skill, I now teach storytelling at universities and coach higher-ups at places known for storytelling like IDEO and Apple.
If you’re interested in writing stories that create human connections, here are nine of the dozens of tips and tricks I’ve picked up since choosing a life of stories.
1. Collect your “micro-stories”
When I began writing, I was eager to share my big stories — the ones that defined my life.
But I quickly realized I only had so many of them to tell and my “micro-stories” — the ones that defined my daily human experience — oftentimes created a stronger connection with readers as they found them more relatable.
Anytime you come across something interesting that connects with you on a personal level or makes you go “hmmm” throughout the day, it’s your job to write it down.
- It could be a realization you had while watching your kids play.
- Or a quirky thing your partner does.
- Or something a friend or family member did or said that made you feel an emotion that wasn’t there earlier or allows you to see the world from a different angle.
You can even form the daily habit of jotting down one childhood memory or simply write one thing you learned each day so when you sit down to write you have a few starting points to play with.
Much like a Margherita pizza, this piece of advice is a classic for a reason, it works.
The quality of your stories is a direct reflection of the quality of your collection.
2. Get clear on the emotions you are looking to stoke
When I began writing, a friend recommended above each draft I placed the words — “What do I want people to do after reading this story?”
Though valuable in its own right, lasting connections didn’t begin to form until I mixed the question up and asked myself — “What do I want people to feel when reading this story?”
Human beings are emotional creatures. We love to have our feelings stoked and our heartstrings tugged.
Before writing your first word, zero in on the emotions you are looking to elicit from readers and take a moment to relive the experience so you too are fully emersed in this emotional state.
While editing his articles, my friend Niklas Göke reads his draft from the perspective of “Am I hitting the emotions I’m looking to hit?”
It’s not a coincidence that he’s one of the most loved writers around.
3. Bury your ego under your neighbor’s storage shed
My friend Conor Neill said something that made a lot of sense — “Human beings don’t resist change, they resist being changed. Your job as a storyteller is to create the space for change to take place.”
You will never accomplish this if you lead with your ego.
People don’t care about how cool you are. In fact, the moments that connect the most are the very times you allow yourself to be uncool.
As the world becomes louder and every Tom, Dick, and Sandra runs online to make their fortune, the honest ones will be the very people who make the biggest long-term impact.
Drop your mask.
Do the opposite of what more and more people are doing on Linkedin.
The world’s most valuable currency will always be honesty.
4. Throw people straight into the action
Movie directors can get away with starting slowly and building up to a certain extent as people have committed for 90 minutes. Online, however, people aren’t nearly as tolerable as the moment you begin to bore them is the very moment they’ve clicked on the next shiny title.
The most effective way to combat this is by pulling people immediately into your world. Lead with the action and then backtrack to fill in only the relevant details before moving the storyline along.
- “The phone rang. This was it, I thought. At last, all the years of struggle I’d endured were about to be worth it.”
- “It was the fourth day of quarantine when my wife began to cry.”
It’s hard to walk away from these sentences. You want to know what the phone call was about and why my wife was crying.
If people love anything, it’s being pulled out of their everyday lives and transported into a new world.
Give people what they want.
Throw them into the action.
5. Let people see your humanity as quickly as possible
Once you’ve gained your audience’s attention, it’s time to gain their trust.
In the beginning of the film Rocky, Sylvester Stallone — a big and burly man — is found running through the streets of Philadelphia when suddenly, he stops to pick up a stray cat.
It’s hard not to like a big and burly man who takes the time to care for a kitten as much like the mix of bravery and vulnerability, strong and sensitive sticks.
Rather than opting for the route of being super-human, show something in your introduction that allows people to see you as simply human.
Being scared, nervous, or downright terrified is always a solid option. After all, if most humans share any two qualities they are fear and doubt.
But again, it doesn’t have to be a big thing. Show people a weakness. Ask for help. Hold the door for someone. Tell someone you love them. Pick up a kitten.
To connect with other humans, you have to show your humanity.
6. Play with your tempo
Tension in your story is key. It keeps people on the edge of their seats. Keeping an eye on your tempo and mixing up your sentence lengths to hit a solid rhythm is also valuable.
I tend to do a lot of the “jab, jab, jab, punch” rhythms of a handful of short descriptive sentences and then end with a longer action sentence (or vice-versa) or quick little points before driving home the main point like in the example below from one of my favorite “micro-stories.”
Regrets, when you’re still young, aren’t regrets — they’re reminders.
Reminders we can still make the time.
Reminders the choice is ours.
Reminders it’s not too late to change.
In a world fuelled by deadlines, to-do lists, and never-ending goals to crush, it’s surprisingly easy to forget what the real goal is.
One other quirky thing I’ve been doing since day one (probably due to beginning to write while raising two young kids) is looking to get a few sentences to rhyme.
It may sound childish but there’s a reason Dr. Suess sells and rap lyrics are so easy to remember. All good art has a memorable rhythm to it. Reading, looking at, or listening to something that reads, looks, or sounds the same is kryptonite for your audience.
Play with your sentences.
People want to be moved.
It’s hard to do that if your writing is monotonous.
7. Remember the 40-second rule
My friend Larry Cornett, Ph.D. shared a wonderful piece of advice.
In conversation, if you are speaking for more than 40 seconds and the person on the receiving end of your words doesn’t show some signs of life — eg: a head nod, smile, “I’m following,” or “That’s interesting!” — the odds are high you’ve lost their attention and you’re being long-winded.
In storytelling, the same rule doesn’t exactly apply, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind. It serves as a reminder that even though gaining people’s attention is vital, it loses serious value if you don’t learn how to keep it.
After kicking off your story with a hook that pulls people into your world, scan your stories to make sure your sentences that elicit some kind of emotional, mental, or even physical response from readers are nicely spread out. For a 1,000 words story, every 150–200 words is a good marker to start. This could come in the form of a “mini-cliffhanger” that raises the stakes and adds to the tension. Or it could come in a change in tempo, the form of weaving in some dialog if your story isn’t dialog-heavy already, or an interesting or humorous thought.
If you can get away with high speed from start to finish, go for it. But remember people love roller coasters and like to have their emotions go up and down as they are taken through your story.
One way I gauge this is by asking my wife to read my stories to herself before she reads them out loud while I watch her body language.
Her slight smile or widening eyes in certain parts (or lack thereof) tells me everything I need to know about how engaged she is.
8. Position other people as the hero
The simplest definition of a story is someone is faced with a challenge and they are willing to risk everything — even their life — to overcome it.
The thing is, though, we rarely — if ever — do this alone.
Frodo had Sam.
Luke had Yoda.
Who helped you in your journey?
This can come in the form of someone passing on a piece of advice, remembering how someone else navigated a similar situation, or someone physically doing something that made your journey easier.
No matter how much we like to think we accomplish our goals on our own, we rarely do. In your stories, give credit where credit is due. It shows your humility. It’s also a solid way to tie in your vulnerability as you’re someone who has the stones to ask or accept help.
If I’ve learned anything in life as someone who falls on the shy line, it’s that those who shine the spotlight on others still catch some rays themselves.
Whenever you can, paint the people who helped you as the hero in your own “Hero’s Journey.”
9. Aim for the reader’s heart in your conclusions
“What’s the most important part of a story?” If you ask a hundred people this question a high majority will say the introduction. To an extent, I agree. After all, if you can’t get people through your door, it’s hard to ensure they leave well-fed.
But as your writing progresses, a solid argument can be made your conclusion is the most valuable territory as most people define an experience by their last interaction with said experience.
Plus, the last thing you want to do is take people for a ride and make them feel like you’re kicking them out of your Jetta when your time together is coming to an end.
When writing articles, aiming for the head and ending with an interesting thought can work. With stories though, you’re better served shooting for the heart.
Imagine the face of your target reader when they finish your story. What do you want to see? Empowerment in their eyes? Or maybe hope? Or possibly a single tear gently running down their left cheek?
Take advantage of this seriously valuable real estate.
This is your last chance to open the door for change to take place.
We all have stories to share. The world is waiting to learn about yours. If you feel like you haven’t done anything of value in your life, even better.
The best stories always entail struggle and if you’ve failed a bunch or have lived most of your life in a state of fear, embarrassment, or shame, you’re sitting on a potential gold mine.
If a guy who grew up with a severe stutter can now make a living teaching and giving talks about how to write and tell stories, imagine how far your own stories can take you.