Doug Lipman [ Storytellers of Canada ] The natural method of storytelling does NOT involve writing out a script, or memorizing even an outline of any kind. The natural method of storytelling is all about repeatedly telling the story to people, noticing their response and changing the telling to get the response you want going forward — learning from each successive telling so that you can improve the story each time you tell it.

Doug Lipman Improving Your StorytellingThe trick is to focus on the listener’s reaction, every time. And every time you will need to respond a little differently. If you arrived at your version of the story by doing that, then the next time, when you need to change it, dynamically contextualized by your live audience, it will happen naturally.

You can add tools to make that natural method more accessible in a not-natural situation. Most of us don’t go to dinner parties and get to tell a 30 minute story, much less a whole lot of them one after the other.

Here’s where Ruth comes in.

Ruth is a law professor. She has the job of helping second year law students argue their first case. They do it for free. Their clients are disenfranchized; They can’t afford lawyers and the stakes are high.

The hardest part for Ruth’s students is the Opening Argument — because that’s a 3 or4 minutes story of the case from the point of view of the client.

By the second year, the students are pretty good at the law part but have no training in this part at all.

If the law student’s first opening argument is on Wednesday, Ruth would have them come in on Monday afternoon, with their opening argument drafted, allowing 2.5 hours. When the student shows up, Ruth has them put their draft face down and tell the story from memory.

It’s invariably dreadful.

But Ruth is a  Trained Appreciator , so she finds 3 or 4 things to appreciate about what they’ve done and then she says, “come on, leave the paper” and they go out into the hallway and stop the first person they meet. Ruth introduces her student to them and asks if they’d be willing to listen to a 3 or 4 minute story and then come up with 3 or 4 things that they liked about the story.

The person agrees, the student tells the story, and it’s still dreadful.

 By the 5th time, it’s comprehensible. By the 10th time, Ruth reports, it’s pretty good. By the 15th time, it’s excellent .

Ruth’s method introduces two tools that are not part of the natural story learning process. The first tool is a  Willing Listener . It’s difficult, when you’re just learning to tell a story, especially a complicated or long story, or something that didn’t happen to you, to be able to  command the attention of your listener  for 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes.

But if someone volunteers their time, and gives it as a gift to you, then you can just focus on getting their reaction from them and not on holding their attention.

The second tool is  Appreciation . When you tell someone a story, and they like it, you get a lot of clues about it. But when someone says explicitly what they liked, you know what they were reacting to. And you are reminded of something you many not have been aware you were doing.


SOURCE: Doug Lipman‘s Keynote Address from Storytellers of Canada on Vimeo. Transcript adapted from Part 3: Natural Story Learning and Part 4: Adding Tools. See also: 1. Social Attitudes, 2. Why Storytelling Matters and 5. The Job of Coaching.

FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Peter Nijenhuls

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