The Gift of Storytelling

Image courtesy of Flickr/Jim Pennucci

People love stories. 

A story can evoke tears and laughter. A story can touch something familiar in each of us and yet show us something new about our lives, our world and ourselves. 

Stories can also be tools for mentoring. Stories can reach resistant protégés in ways that well-crafted advice may not. Unlike advice or feedback, stories have a way of circumventing the mind’s logic to capture the imagination.

Most stories are either crafted or chosen. The crafted ones are “baked from scratch”; the chosen ones are “recrafted” to fit the mentor, protégé and learning objective.

Most mentors can learn to tell stories well, but some may find storytelling challenging. If you decide to incorporate a story into mentoring discussions, it’s helpful to structure your story around the following elements: context, challenge and climax. 

The story’s context establishes the setting. It’s the “once upon a time” part that invites the protégé into the story. A story should start with a transition that uses words or cues — such as a long pause — to signify that a story is beginning.

Even well-told stories often violate grammar. They commonly shift between the past and present tense. The past tense tells what happened; the present tense is acted out. 

Furthermore, a good story should contain a challenge, described as “dissonance.” To communicate dissonance, create a dilemma that the protégé can identify with. Once you’ve created a dilemma, describe in your story plan the challenge for each of the key characters using one sentence. This can help you keep things straight.

The story’s climax is a punch line with a lesson. The climax is more than just an ending. It’s a resolution that can be a tool for helping the protégé to learn. The storyteller instructs through resolution, and the protégé allows the need for resolution to lead to learning.

With the story mapped out, the climax would reside on the other side of the gaps created by the challenge. If listeners leap over the gaps and eliminate the dissonance, they experience insight and learning. But the climax must be truly inviting, realistic and relevant. 

Then there’s structure. Here are a few techniques and tips for effectively delivering a story.

Dramatize. Don’t be afraid to ham it up a bit. You’re trying to paint a picture. As you speak, focus on the scene in your mind and try to become part of it.

Describe. Use a lot of details in the beginning of the story. Listeners need to hear more details while you’re creating the context. A good rule of thumb is to start by using more details than you think the story needs.

Shift. As you’re telling the story, act as a guide. Other times, be part of the action. These dual functions make it acceptable for the storyteller to shift between the past and present tense.

Pause. Timing is key. So-called pregnant pauses can entice your protégé and imbue a story with drama and suspense.

Gesture. Use different gestures, variedfacial expressions and dramatic body movements. Such techniques can help turn a written story into a living demonstration.

Stay focused. The proverbial admonition to “stick to the story” is good advice. The storyteller who goes off on tangents loses momentum. Don’t introduce secondary issues.

Stay positive. Even sad stories should have an element of joy. If a story is too acerbic, protégés tend to resist. The same goes for exaggeration. Most storytellers tend to embellish and tailor stories to fit their needs and goals.

Stories fit just anywhere. A story canorganize the main points of the learning to follow. As a conclusion, a story can reiterate the core principles, ideas and concepts of the mentoring session.

Stories can engage learning emotionally and show protégés the consequences of taking or omitting certain actions.

But it isn’t enough simply to “make up a story.” As with most worthwhile endeavors, effective storytelling requires thorough planning.