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10 Tips for Tapping Your Inner Storyteller

Heed these secrets from master storytellers, and you too can learn how to prosper from this life-changing craft.

Thomas Jackson/Getty Images
Thomas Jackson/Getty Images,

by Logan Ward

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Storytelling is a fun, effective way to envision a future of fulfillment—and then make it happen. We are all storytellers by nature, but not all storytellers are created equal. Heed these secrets from master storytellers, and you too can learn how to prosper from this life-changing craft.

1. INVITE SERENDIPITY

When as a boy Mandalay Entertainment Group Chairman and CEO Peter Guber, author of Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story, built a ham radio, the world opened up to him, and he began to dream of travel. He could have told himself one narrative story —that travel was an unattainable dream for him because his family didn’t have the money—but instead he used creative visualization and told himself an aspirational story, imagining that he’d find a solution to his family’s lack of resources. When the idea of global tours for students crossed his peripheral vision, the idea of organizing the trips in exchange for travel vouchers leapt out at him.

2. BE YOURSELF

Your story should be a touchstone for your beliefs and actions, not something driven by the more fleeting aspects of your life, such as fear or joy. “Your story has to connect your heart, tongue, feet and wallet,” Guber says. “They all have to be going the same direction. Authenticity must shine through.”

3. RE-EXAMINE THE PAST

Identity is not just about who you are now and your goals for the future. It’s also about how you view your past. “The past is up for grabs. It’s like history,” says Northwestern University psychologist and personal narrative expert Dan McAdams. “People talk about the ‘Ronald Reagan years’ and ask if they were good or bad. But how we view that period in history changes over time. Ditto with your life story.” For example, during your 20s you might look back on your teen years as a wasteland of parties and procrastination. But by the time you’re 35, you might judge your teen years less harshly. Maybe that’s when you first picked up the guitar, which now gives you joy and fulfillment. Or maybe that’s when you met the girl who became your wife. In other words, as you take authorship over your life, don’t let your past define you.  In essence, it's narrative therapy.“You don’t have to be locked in to the story you’ve been telling yourself for 10 or 20 years,” McAdams says. “You can re-author the past, come up with a different meaning and move forward.”

You don’t have to be locked in to the story you’ve been telling yourself for 10 or 20 years. You can re-author the past, come up with a different meaning and move forward.

Dan McAdams, Psychologist and personal narrative expert

4. WORK ON NARRATIVE ALIGNMENT

Once Pamela Mitchell, Life Reimagined thought leader and CEO and founder of The Reinvention Institute, is able to get her clients to reimagine the past, she helps them actively realign it to fit their goals for reinvention. One of her clients wanted to start a new business, but Mitchell noticed he was stuck on a recurring story from his childhood—that because he grew up poor and didn’t attend college he was at a major disadvantage. Though the client hired Mitchell to help him alter his future story, she knew he first needed to resolve his past story, an “excuse” story to hide his fear of failure. The facts remained the same: He grew up poor. But instead of letting his past limit him, he realigned his negative historical view with his positive vision for a new business by taking pride in all he had accomplished despite his humble upbringing. You can’t change the past, but “sometimes you have to shape your view of the past to fit your goals,” Mitchell explains.  

5. EMBRACE VULNERABILITY

Hero stories have a long tradition in our culture, but false heroics fall flat when it comes to personal narratives. Making yourself out to be someone you’re not won’t work. Besides, says Sarah Austin Jenness, producing director of The Moth, a not-for-profit organization that showcases all kinds of people telling captivating, true stories, “the stories that really connect us are not about the next triumph but rather the biggest failure or true attempts that don’t always work out.” Everyone, everywhere—even heroes—can relate to feeling vulnerable and afraid. Being honest about your fears takes courage and helps you gain self-respect and the respect of others. Yes, there is a place for heroics and happy endings in your story, as long as they are true.

6. SIMPLIFY WHENEVER POSSIBLE

Storytellers who perform at Moth events aren’t allowed to read written accounts of their stories or even bring notes. Stories should come from the heart. And they’re limited to five or 10 minutes. The Moth encourages people to prepare and practice in advance. In its storytelling workshops, Moth instructors ask people to boil their stories down to one sentence. What is the story really about? “We’re digging for the heartbeat of the story,” Jenness says. Next, instructors help participants pick key scenes to support and strengthen the narrative. These scenes become waypoints to help storytellers stay on track. The goal is for people to stay focused and concise, which is a great goal for any storyteller, whether they’re crafting a narrative to tell to an audience or prospective employer, or whether they’re using story to help map their own Life Reimagined journey.

The stories that really connect us are not about the next triumph but rather the biggest failure or true attempts that don’t always work out.

Sarah Austin Jenness, Producing director of The Moth

7. CREATE A STRONG NARRATIVE ARC

“Stories are not lists, decks, PowerPoints, flip charts, lectures, pleas, instructions, regulations, manifestos, calculations, lesson plans, threats, statistics, evidence, orders or raw facts,” Guber writes in Tell to Win. The best narrative stories have a beginning, middle and end—an arc—involving tension and drama and resulting in change. These basic story elements lead to the payoff: emotional connection.

8. EMBRACE CHANGE

As you grow and your point of view and priorities shift, your story will change. That’s natural. Certain values, such as honesty or inclusivity, might remain rock solid, while other aspects of your life evolve. For instance, you might get a job offer in a faraway city or lose a spouse. You might decide to retire early from an unfulfilling job and devote your time to more purposeful volunteer work. “Stories are never static,” Mitchell says. “The minute they’re static, you become static. If you tell the same story over and over again you will not get a different result.

9. TAKE A POSITIVE SPIN

Sometimes you might undermine your chosen path by belittling your story. For instance, in unguarded moments one of Mitchell’s clients, who quit banking to become a filmmaker, tells herself: “I used to make so much money. Now I’m a starving artist. Woe is me.” But when she’s more mindful of her story and where she hopes to be in the long run, she views it this way: “I used to be stuck in the corporate world and totally trapped in a job that wasn’t creating any value. Look what an amazing, creative field I’m in and at all the amazing things I’m doing.

Sometimes you have to shape your view of the past to fit your goals.

Pamela Mitchell, Life Reimagined thought leader and CEO and founder of The Reinvention Institute

10. WORDS ARE POWERFUL— MAKE THEM COUNT

The words you use when telling your story can win over your audience—or they can block you from reaching your goals. In Mitchell’s book, The 10 Laws of Career Reinvention: Essential Survival Skills for Any Economy, she makes the distinction between “believing” words and “ambivalent” words. Believing words, such as know, will, sure, positive, can, have, trust and certain, communicate confidence and determination. By contrast, ambivalent words, including think, maybe, doubt, try, can’t, lack, might and wonder, convey weakness and can prevent you from realizing your dreams. Catching yourself using ambivalent words isn’t easy. “It’s like asking a fish if it sees the water,” Mitchell says. As a coach, she keeps her ears pricked for ambivalent words when listening to her clients. With her help, they become more self-aware and can work on using more believing words. If you don’t have a coach or therapist, ask a spouse or close friend to listen for ambivalent words when you tell your story.

Now take some time to reflect on your past, present and desired future. Then reshape your story to get exactly what you want.