“It was a dark and stormy night…”

My friend Bill Quain says that the four most important words for an author are: “Tell them a story.” In years of writing and public speaking, I have found no more powerful instruction for a communicator.

Ira Glass of This American Life giving a lectu...
Ira Glass – Image via Wikipedia

So what’s a story? From Google: “A message that tells the particulars of an act or occurrence or course of events.” This innocent definition c

ontains some powerful thoughts:

  • “A message”–“An object of communication, or the contents thereof.” While “message” has come to mean a communication with a purpose, the original and more general usage is simply a clump of stuff, usually intended to convey some meaning. That would include words, sounds, pictures, perhaps smells and tastes, or even just an experience.
  • “…that tells the particulars of an act or occurrence or course of events.” The particulars: What happened; to whom; when; where; how; why. The particulars put the reader/listener/message recipient into the frame of the story, engaging their senses.
  • “…act or occurrence or course of events” may in fact be too limiting. You can tell a story about an object–something that is just sitting there. The time element, which is probably important to engage the audience, can be introduced indirectly–the history of the object; something that is about to happen, or might happen.

Ira Glass, of This American Life, offers storytelling tips. The two main parts of a story are an anecdote and some reflection, according to Glass. He says, “The power of the anecdote is so great…No matter how boring the material is, if it is in story form…there is suspense in it, it feels like something’s going to happen. The reason why is because literally it’s a sequence of events…you can feel through its form [that it’s] inherently like being on a train that has a destination…and that you’re going to find something…”

Reflection is telling about the anecdote. Why am I telling you this? What’s important for you to know?

Dr. Clare Albright has some good storytelling tips, including:

  • Paint images with your words by appealing to the five senses.
  • Create suspense. Use a provocative sentence or question: “What had caused the tremendous explosion?”
  • “Use words that ‘sing.’ This would include words that inspire, words that imitate a sound, words that paint a beautiful picture, etc. Become an investigator on the prowl to find more words that have this kind of effect. Examples: sanctuary, crescendo, seaside, etc.”

(Read this about the original “…dark and stormy night.” When my kids were growing up, they were greatly entertained by the recursive, “It was a dark and stormy night, and a band of robbers was seated around a table. Suddenly, one of them said, “Hey, Jack, tell us a story!” And Jack said, “It was a dark and stormy night, and a band of robbers…”)

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