Whether it’s a family get-together, a casual evening out with friends, or a session with your hair stylist, being able to tell an entertaining story seems like a great way both to pass the time and impress your audience. A good story can even mean the difference between being employed or not, or being in a relationship or not. However, it seems that for many of us, the art of story-telling seems to be just beyond our grasp.
You certainly know what it’s like when someone’s story-telling skills are sorely deficient. The minutes seem to drag on indefinitely, and at your first opportunity, you tear yourself away. It may feel impolite but as you squirm uncomfortably in your chair or on your feet, you’re hardly listening to what the person is saying while you plan your getaway.
As a story-teller, it may feel good to tell someone else your problems. As University of Nebraska Lincoln communications researcher Jody Kellas and colleagues (2015) note, “Individuals cope with their difficulties interpersonally” (p. 846). We often tell stories as a way to soothe our hurt feelings, disappointments, or feelings of having made a mistake. The more often you replay the tale of having your home broken into, the less painful it feels and the less you perhaps blame yourself for leaving that back door unlocked.
Stories such as these can affect the well-being of our listeners. If you’re at all an empathetic individual, it’s likely you resonate to the negative feelings of those who share their sad experiences with you. Kellas and her associates decided to investigate how friends felt after hearing their friends tell a story involving some type of difficulty. The researchers recruited a sample of 49 friend pairs (college students roughly divided between the sexes) in which one person would tell and the other would listen to a story. In one condition, the friends shared negatively-tinged stories and in the control, they related events without a particular emotional tone. The stories were told on three different days. Three weeks later, the listeners and tellers completed questionnaires assessing their mood and mental health.
There were, as Kellas expected, some beneficial effects of story-telling on tellers in terms of lower negative affect over the course of the 3 interactions, regardless of condition. Disclosure of any type, whether negative or neutral, does seem to have a positive impact on a story-teller’s overall mood. For the listeners, though, by the time of the follow-up, their negative affect showed a sudden uptick. As the authors concluded, “This sharp accumulation of negative affect suggests that, in small doses, listeners are able to manage the negative consequences of listening to others talk about their difficult experiences, but reflecting on these experiences may have detrimental health consequences over time” (p. 856).
A surprising outcome of the study was that, additionally, the tellers of difficult stories began to feel increasingly that their listening partners were less and less skilled as communicators. The more you hear a person relate sad stories to you, in other words, the more likely you may be to send cues of your own disinterest and discomfort. It’s as if negative story-tellers become negatively reinforcing stimuli that people prefer to avoid if at all possible.
With this background in mind, these 8 guidelines should help your stories be well-received by others:
1. Set the context: You know what happened in a given situation and where your story is going, but your listener does not. The very first words should introduce such details that a good reporter would include, namely who, what, why, where, and how.
2. Avoid unimportant tangents: It’s easy to get lost in your own details especially if you have a mind that tends to wander and aren’t that good at editing your thoughts. As fascinating as they may seem to you, these sidebars will only distract and perhaps frustrate your audience.
3. Be aware of your audience: Stories that have a possibly offensive theme or content, such as ones in which you broadcast your own resources in front of others who don’t have those resources, should be edited or not told at all. There’s no point in making your listener feel bad because she doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to shop at the expensive store that served as the locale of your story of how you paid too much for a scarf.
4. Embellish a little, but not too much: The more often we tell a story, the more little details we tend to add, and as we do, those stories drift further and further away from the truth of what actually happened. Eventually, you may end up describing something that never occurred at all, as has famously happened with celebrities who get caught in a lie.
5. Rehearse what you want to say before you start: You don’t have to read out a script every time you tell your story, but you might want to run it through in your mind. It’s especially important to anticipate the ending because this will allow you to follow a more direct path through the arc of the story from beginning to middle all the way until the final, climactic scene.
6. Be considerate of the people in your story: If you’re talking about someone else, you want to make very sure that you’re not revealing secrets about that person. “Outing” a friend who hasn’t officially revealed her sexual orientation would not only be inconsiderate but could create awkward moments for your friend.
7. Keep it short: That 30-second elevator speech we’re all told to prepare when we meet a stranger is a good rule of thumb to use in story-telling. You might go for as long as a minute or two, but anything longer than that is putting far too much attention on you that would best be shared with your listeners.
8. Pay attention to the impact you’re having on others: As the Nebraska researchers discovered, listeners can become preoccupied and disturbed by hearing a story relating a difficult experience, especially when those negatively-tinged stories become repeated over time. If you have a truly sad story to relate, be sure that you’ve adequately prepared your listener and also that you don’t go on for so long and in such detail that you’re putting stress on that listener.
Telling stories is a natural and enjoyable part of social interaction. When you tell those stories with these tips in mind, you and your listeners will be able to gain fulfillment through mutually supportive interactions.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015
Kellas, J. K., Horstman, H. K., Willer, E. K., & Carr, K. (2015). The benefits and risks of telling and listening to stories of difficulty over time: Experimentally testing the expressive writing paradigm in the context of interpersonal communication between friends. Health Communication, 30(9), 843-858. doi:10.1080/10410236.2013.850017