Just tell the story
Carlos Ghosn, with his Mr Bean looks and lifestyle, knows about it. Jack Ma, poised to tell the grandchildren a goodnight tale, understands it. Tommy Koh, with his quiet determination and diplomatic genius, is a past master at it. Jeremy Corbyn, unfortunately, couldn’t do it at all. Telling a story well requires you to comprehend the understatement, to appreciate the value of the silence in a pause, to fill your mouth with simple words and let your tongue bowl them at your audience with a slow leg spin. Even then your audience may not hit a six.
The Story is the basis of education. It is how our species’ earliest learnings were passed on. As children we absorb the simplest rules of life by a story. As grown-ups we add colour and vividity to our daily routine with one. As old people we remind ourselves and others of the greatness of the mundane and the value of the trivial. Nothing enchants people as much as a story. No sales encounter is complete without one, no glass of wine fully appreciated but with a yarn.
So how do we fashion one, polish it, embellish it, deliver it?
First you must recognise the seeds of a good story. You can do that by exaggerating what you see, by making up what isn’t there but would be fun if it was. Your canvas is empty until you add the seeds, banal until you add the colour. The muddiest track can be painted brightly. Secondly, you must find the point of the story. Pointless stories are just that. They defeat themselves as well as their audience. Every story must have a purpose. Here’s an example of what I mean.
A (fairly) young lady was due to present herself of the Board of her company to hopefully acquire a very senior job in the business. She came to show me her dress rehearsal. She was smartly attired with a suitably youngish but compelling hairdo. ‘Youthful gravitas’ was what her get-up said. She was wearing a long, dangling necklace of stones and brasses, completely acceptable for the occasion. Only she is a vivacious lady, inclined to sway to and fro as she makes her points most graphically. The necklace swayed in time. Coming to rest after each sway, it was unsure of where it was to land on the geography of her bosom.
Soon the necklace was not merely a distraction. It was a challenge. Had there been a Tote booth nearby I would have placed bets on the necklace’s next port of call. I had not even heard what she had said, let alone understood it. Explained, as tactfully as such a distraction can be, she understood the risk associated with her jewellery. Slinging the necklace over her shoulder she produced the effect of a pretty choker, safe from all distractions bar those of commending attention to her words of wisdom. Moral of story: don’t distract from what you have to say.
Truth and stories – can you have both? Do your stories have to be truthful? They do if you represent them as fact, for sure. But why would you do that? Your story is to enlighten and entertain not to provide evidence for a court trial. Embellish it so that it is amusing. Strengthen it to make your point more vividly. Do what was said of Oscar Wilde – ‘He never let the facts get in the way of a good story’. But don’t say it is true if it isn’t!
Brevity and stories – the Essence of all communication. The first sign of a disaster about to take place is when someone says “Long story short”. This is an excuse for interminable detail, chronic hesitation and, quite often, forgetting the point of the story altogether. ‘Pray it, Say it, Slay it’ is how I suggest you do it. Long stories are so boring that Ronnie Corbett made a whole amusing sketch out of them weekly for years.
Races and stories – don’t even think it. You can get very tangled up with shibboleths as soon as the first words are out of your mouth. Animals and stories – excellent provided the butt of the joke is a human and not a beloved Pekinese. Babies and stories – wonderful material as long as you praise the baby, the mother, the father, the siblings, the grandparents, the parents-in-law and everyone (and every creature) remotely connected with the infant.
Good storytellers are welcome everywhere. They enhance a meal, a coach ride, a sleep-over, a sermon. They make the daily routine seem purposeful. They cheer up the sick, revive the depressed, reawaken the spirit in prisoners. They have a gift, but it is a gift you can learn.
May you do so – and become a Terrific Story Teller.
You’ll enjoy it, too.