I turned the dial again and again. “Where’s that information in my brain?!” I asked myself, standing at my locker at the Dolphin Club.
Brisk San Francisco Bay swim behind me, I began to shiver and realized I had forgotten my lock combination. The same lock I had been using for years.
“27-20…what?” I groaned in frustration. A barrel-chested gray-haired swimmer walked by and pointed to a key on a thin chain around his neck. “I forgot my combination once too. You have it cut off, just go find Lou,” he said, referring to the 80-something caretaker of the club, the salty dog of salty dogs.
As I considered my next move (find Lou, borrow a phone, ask wife to scour my computer), I thought of all the things I’ve been forgetting lately: passwords, phone numbers, addresses, names and meeting places. And why I’m so interested in retellable stories – they’re the things we remember!
Because for all the massive investment of time and money in social media in the past 10 years, we’ve invested much less in the original social media: the stories we tell and retell, person-to-person, in interviews, in cafes and restaurants, and in meetings. This social media is at the foundation of our relationships, and at the foundation of our organizations.
There are some simple steps to make your stories retellable. Here are seven of them:
1. COMMIT TO THE JOURNEY
A retellable story takes your listeners on a journey, drawing them through twists and turns, sparking their imagination and leading them to a key realization. To truly engage them, you need to lead them out of their seat to a different time and place. When you draw them on a journey, according to Stephen Denning in his book The Springboard, their “minds work in concert with the storyteller to focus entirely on generating the virtual world of the story.” Your audience co-creates the world, once you step in and commit to the journey.
So set the scenes of your story with boldness. If you take your audience only halfway on a journey – that is, you skip over the details – or tell the ending at the beginning, they won’t go along with you, and you won’t be able to guide them to the treasure (your message). No journey, no treasure – and no treasure, no reason to retell.
2. USE SENSORY DETAILS
Neurosicence is taking this idea of shared experience one step further. According to brain researcher Uri Hasson of Princeton, when you tell a story, your listener’s neural activity closely mirrors your own. When you tell a story rich with sensory details, your audience doesn’t just hear it, listener and teller become one, as if the listener, too, had been there.
On your journey, deepen the experience with textures, tastes, colors, and smells. Use enough details to hold the listener’s attention as you make your way through the journey. If you don’t, or if you hammer your audience with facts, you lose that connection…literally.
“If the listener, however,” according to Hasson, “fails to comprehend what the speaker is trying to communicate, their brain patterns decouple.”
You know that blank stare? It’s a disconnect, and a sign that you need to get back on the journey. Use your sensory details!
3. MOVE THROUGH YOUR PROBLEM
A story is a problem, retold in an interesting way that makes us care. But have you ever heard someone ask if they can tell you a story…and then watch as they get stuck in a series of painful experiences? This happens a lot in the non-profit world, in part because organizations are taking on big problems. And it’s real, but it’s not the most retellable option. The opposite direction, which often happens in business (software development, for example), is an attempt to keep things inspiring by focusing on solutions, entirely overshooting the pain of the problems. The best stories are a balance of both.
Sometimes I hear, “Facing a great problem, that’s the hero’s journey!” But while many of the great movies of our time may be, most of our stories are not an entire hero’s journey. Your story will likely have a hero – you may meet a mentor, and certainly will be called to adventure. But if you start with something much more simple, like a problem that you’re facing, and a way you’re moving through it, around it, or over it, you’re well on your way to a retellable story.
4. SPARK SUSPENSE
Did you ever learn the essay structure in high school: Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said? Well, when it comes to a retellable story, it’s wrong – at least in the literal sense. I work with very confident people all the time that say, “People don’t have a lot of time! They’ll get impatient if you don’t tell them what you’re going to say!” While that may be partially true, the payoff is MUCH GREATER if you spark their curiosity.
Have you ever been in a movie theater when everyone gasps in unison? According to Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, when you tap the “evolutionary purpose of story and electrify our curiosity, it triggers a delicious dopamine rush that tells us to pay attention.” So use the art of suspense by holding back your big findings, as with a treasure, until just the right moment.
5. HONE IN ON WHAT CHANGED
The world is changing every instant, and the stories we share with one another help us make sense of that change. In part, this is because a story eliminates the complexities of our lives, creating, as Stephen Denning says in Springboard, “a virtual world in which time is structured and foreshortened, compared to the struggle and chaos” of our own lives. So to harness a story and make it retellable, we’ve got to tune in to the change we’re revealing, and cut excessive details.
Maybe it was your expectation or knowledge of something that changed, or the outer world itself. Did you set out on your journey thinking you had the answer, but found out you were very wrong? Did someone you despised become your strongest ally? Did you find, simply, that “we can’t get there from here?”
Once you know what really changed, zoom into that moment just as the change is revealed. Freeze time and depict it to the audience with some details. This way the change will reveal greater contrast and make the payoff that much more distinct.
6. LAND YOUR MEANING
At the core, a story is about sharing meaning. So, once you’ve crafted your journey and guided the audience with a sense of suspense and challenge, depicting the change that occurred, it’s time to deliver your meaning – the long-awaited treasure. This might take the form of a reflection, realization, or something that clicked for you personally as a result of the experience.
To help land your meaning, make sure you know your destination before you begin the story. Do your findings along the way lead to your meaning without giving it away? What do you really want to say, above everything else? Is it relevant to this particular audience, on this particular day – not just what you feel like telling? When the audience nods, laughs or says, “Ahhh!” you’ll know you’ve landed your meaning, given them a chance to find the treasure, and given that treasure a much greater chance to travel on after you’ve left the room.
7. TAKE FIVE
If you’re not the type of person to start telling new stories right away, let’s lower the bar. Take five stories you’ve told before. Start with the first one, and look at it again, from every angle. Is it a journey? Is there a problem? Is there a clear change that has resulted? Can you add details to keep the audience connected?
Tell that story at a party or at lunch. Or to make things easier, find a designated listener, someone to whom you can say, “I’m working on this!” and give you some feedback. Tell them your story, and see what happens. Then, as time allows, do the same with the other four. And whether you write your stories to keep in your story box, or remember them in your head, you may find yourself asking, in a cafe or business meeting, “Was that retellable?”
I finally did remember my locker combination, and saved myself the embarrassment of having my lock cut after some complicated logic and about 100 attempts. Along the way, I also gained a couple of good reminders: how easy it is to forget, and how important it is to make things memorable.
For more storytelling techniques see here: 15 Storytelling Techniques to Work on Today. (Note: there may be some overlap!)*** About the Author
Jay Golden is a storyteller, speaker and story coach, serving clients such as Facebook, YouTube, and the Environmental Defense Fund. As co-founder of Wakingstar, Jay leads storytelling workshops, creates retellable organizational stories, and helps leaders dive into their key insights to connect with and inspire audiences far and wide. He does his best thinking while swimming in the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay.