To Tell a Better Story, Forget About the Sizzle — Focus on the Stakes
When it comes to telling stories, Eric Scheur has heard a lot of them. He and Reba Sparrow co-produce The Mystery Box Show, which is a storytelling show about sex. Over the last eight years, Scheur estimates that he and Sparrow have shepherded a couple of hundred people up onto a stage in front of a crowded theatre to talk, willingly, about sex. That alone blows my mind. Having personally worked with hundreds of people preparing workplace presentations over the last two decades, I am in awe of the magnitude of the challenge that they both embrace.
Getting people to stand up in conference rooms and talk about quarterly earnings, or their latest software upgrade, in front of a few of their clients or a handful of colleagues can feel like a Herculean task. The fact that Scheur and Sparrow get people to talk about sex in front of large crowds without the benefit of electric prods, threats, or bribes of any kind is mindboggling.
When I wanted to do a podcast about storytelling, I knew I had to go to them. Scheur and Sparrow’s work is akin to Vince Lombardi leading the Packers to victory while I am the lowly Walter Matthau rousing the Bad News Bears to win the league pennant. They happily take on the challenge and accomplish it with relative ease, delighting both the participants and the audiences.
While you may not be heading off to share the story of your private adventures with a theatre full of strangers, you can undoubtedly benefit from the wisdom Scheur shared when he was the featured Guest Czar on my Communications Czar Podcast. Here are a few of the gems that he shared regarding how you can incorporate stories into your workplace presentations:
· Don’t include stories unless they have “stakes.”
The difference between an anecdote and a story is stakes. Scheur defines stakes as “whether something really matters to you and whether your character has an arc throughout the story.”
Scheur provides a fun example, “One day I was downtown and I couldn’t believe this, I saw a person wearing a unicorn head mask, wearing roller skates, playing the accordion. It was the wildest thing I have ever seen.” “That,” he says, “Is an anecdote, I wasn’t changed by it.”
If you add stakes to the same story, your listener will respond to it in a very different way. “It would be more like, if I had started that story by, ‘I have always wanted to see a true Portland moment, ever since moving here. I haven’t seen any of the weirdness or the strange uniqueness that the Portland people are supposed to personify, and I was beginning to think that I never, ever would…’” Adding the stakes in advance engages your listeners.
· Do focus on the emotions.
“Emotions are key to pulling people into your story,” Scheur teaches. “The emotions are the determinant, there has to be emotional change, there has to be moving forward, the key element would be the emotion, and that is really what connects us.”
Stories, he says, “Connect with people because, at a base level, we really experience a very similar range of emotions, no matter who you are and no matter what circumstances you are going through.”
“The situation could be completely different between the way one person experiences a painful moment and another person experiences a painful moment. But if they connect on that level, of like, ‘Oh, that was painful for you, or triumphant for you, or it created a sense of love, or wonder, or mysticism,’ if you connect on those levels then I can relate to you, no matter who you are or what stories you tell,” Scheur observes.
· Do practice your story out loud in front of other people.
The people you practice in front of don’t have to know much about your subject. You need their feedback to see if things make sense and your delivery is engaging. Your friends, family, or housemates are all perfect for this role. Try to practice in front of a few different people at different times because, as Scheur points out,
“Telling it to the same people over and over again can get a little stale. It’s like telling people a joke and then telling them the same exact joke right away, there’s no surprise. The energy exchange between the speaker and listener is going to be completely different the second time.”
· Do embrace silence.
“There’s an incredible power in using silence when you’re on stage or when you’re talking anywhere. Silence really highlights a moment,” Scheur observes. “A lot of people feel like when they get on stage and they have that nervousness, that stage fright, that ‘I’d better tell my story really quickly and I better not mess anything up and I better really keep talking and talking and not leave any space because if I leave any space and people are going to be mad at me for taking up their time and I know I shouldn’t be up here taking up their time and they’re going to be mad at me for doing it so I just…’ and that’s just like being met with a barrage of sound,” he says.
Instead, Scheur encourages that you, “Stop for a moment and leave a little space. Not only does it come across as powerful but you can use that as a tool to gather your next thought and think about what you really want to say.”
· Don’t fret about being nervous.
“Reba tells the storytellers, ‘If you’re nervous, you should be,” Scheur recalls. “It’s good that you’re nervous, nerves actually are almost an essential part of coming across well on stage, people want to feel like you are being genuine, not just giving a memorized talk and reading off a piece of paper. I think you’ll rarely find a performer, whether they’re a musician, a stand-up comic, or anything on stage that doesn’t feel a little bit nervous before the show,” he says.
· Don’t overthink storytelling.
“A lot of people get very precious about storytelling,” he says. “It’s just something that we have as an instinct, in the same way that spiders weave webs and whales sing songs to communicate with one another; stories are a tool that we have.”
I think it’s nothing to be precious about,” Scheur points out, “Stories are a tool that we have; it’s just the way we do things.”
You can hear the rest of the story about telling your stories in the newest episode of the Communications Czar Podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on www.CommunicationsCzar.com.