Networking skills are as essential to good business these days as a college degree or Microsoft Office proficiency.
And while being a good listener, head nodder and question asker is a solid start, there comes a moment when you gotta let the room know what you’re all about. Which is why every man needs to know at least one room-working story and how to execute it with ease.
To assist, we tapped Sarah Austin Jenness, executive producer at The Moth, a veritable Raconteur’s Anonymous that promotes the art of storytelling through podcasts, radio and exceptionally entertaining live events.
Here’s what Jenness taught us about spinning a real crowd-pleaser.
What should it be about?
Personal stakes win, so always go first person. Having a point of view is what connects us. Let the audience know what is important. “If it’s ‘Who cares?’ to you, it’ll be ‘Who cares?’ to [them],” says Jenness. “Think of a time things changed, an unexpected turn of events.” Try to think of a story that has a “But then, one day...?” moment in it.
How long should it be?
Short. Step into the spotlight, but don’t Bogart it. “Everyone has at least one 4-5 minute story that will pop up in any situation. Tell it at a party, an interview, on a car ride or to a stranger while your shirts are on spin-cycle.”
On how to deliver ...
Set up the stakes quickly and reel ‘em in. What do you want and why? “Beware of too many characters. More than two are hard for an audience to keep track of.” And stay on topic. A digression or two is okay, but too many will dilute the tale and distract the listener.
Know the structure before you begin
Says Jenness: “Dive right in: ‘So I’m at the door of the funeral home, in a clown costume, and I’m terrified.’” Beyond that, steer clear of a weighty mid-section and have a good idea of where you want to land the story. “Know your first line, your last line and the basic bullet points in between. Know the flow but don’t memorize.” You want the story to be a little different every time you tell it.
Avoid generalizations and stereotypes
Don’t assume your audience understands something that goes untold (“You know how it is...”). Use the personal “I.” “Why can only you tell this story?” asks Jenness. “The more personal the story, the more universal it becomes.”
Pregnant pauses are your friend
Negative space is every storyteller’s secret weapon. “If everything in the story carries the same weight, and is told at the same pace, the audience doesn’t know what’s most important to you in the story. Slow down with your big moments, and pause after a reveal to let the weight sink in.”
And know when to shut up
“You’ve lived many years and you can tell many, many stories. Cramming your life into five minutes is a disservice to everyone. Pick a story. Tell it well. Then come back later and tell another.”
And finally, to get the juices flowing, Jenness gave us some of her favorites from Moth performances:
- Sherman “OT” Powell on going to Pickpocket School
- Peter Pringle was on Death Row for a crime he didn’t commit
- Dameon Wilburn on reversing a curse that kept her from falling in love
- Ed Gavagan’s hilarious golfing story
- Bill Krieger on putting his daughter to sleep until the night before he’s deployed for Iraq
- Ivan Kuraev’s stories of his Russian Grandmother
And our favorite? The story of a mysterious package Cynthia Riggs received when she was in her 80s. It's a must-listen.