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Storytelling for Introverts, Part 1

Transfix your audiences with the gems inside and around you.

I bet you have more stories up your sleeve than you realize. And they might actually be right on your keychain. I recently attended a communication symposium at Baruch College in New York at which the facilitators, Barbara Ganley and Alan Levine, guided the audience through a series of interactive exercises on storytelling. They divided the audience into teams of four and instructed us to take out our keys—house keys, car keys, and any other keys from the depths of our pockets and purses. Ganley, director of Community Expressions, LLC, a storytelling-for-change consultancy, and Levine, “top dog” at CogDog It, an educational technology consultancy, asked us to briefly gather our thoughts to tell our teammates a two-minute story about our keys.

As an introvert, my first thought was: “Oh no. I’m being put on the spot to tell a story without time for adequate preparation. Get me out of here.” But my second thought was: “Stay the course. I like to tell stories, and have taken improv courses to improve my ability to trust myself in the moment. So even though processing my thoughts out loud is not my natural forte, I can compensate for that by following the instructions: come up with a beginning, ending, and arc for the story. I can also use my voice and nonverbals to keep my small audience engaged. I’m up for this challenge. Besides, I would be letting down my teammates if I stepped out—they’d need to find a fourth person to replace me.”

Before my cranky inner voice could utter another protest, Ganley and Levine posted an online stopwatch on the big projection screen at the front of the room. So I took out my keys and chose to have fun with a story I just concocted (a bit about the mashed up gym fob sadly drooping from my keychain)—rather than wasting my energy fearing the judgments of my new acquaintances. Their stories ranged from poignant to dazzling. I was grateful that Ganley and Levine had created a safe space that encouraged us to be creative.

When I approached them after the symposium, I learned that despite their big stage personalities, Ganley and Levine are both introverts—something we have in common. So I invited them here to share their insights about storytelling, including the mechanics of how you can do it well, particularly as an introvert.


Introverts are often more comfortable behind the scenes rather than at the center of attention, which typically comes with the territory of telling a story—all eyes on you. How do you reconcile that and tell a story with gusto, or at least your own quiet passion?


AL: It comes from focusing on what you are passionate about, and doing all you can to move away from the “all eyes on me” that inhibits us introverts. For me, it comes from getting over that inertia-fueled hump of fear, and finding the value in being heard. I admit I get a bit of an adrenaline rush once I am on, and lose myself in the moment.

BG: For me it has to do with finding the right story rather than focusing on the performance. Then, even if I have to tell a story right on the spot without warm-up, if I think about doing the story justice—how I want to open and develop the thread and end it—I forget about being in front of people. I find myself entering that magical space of story, and like Alan, I lose myself in the moment.

NA: Why are stories universally appealing—a compelling way to engage an audience both interpersonally and in front of a room?

AL: I will skip the well-worn metaphor of cave drawings. To paraphrase Randy Olson in his book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist, when we tell and listen to stories, we move from centering in our brains to the more emotional centers of the heart and gut. It’s how we engage with our close friends and family, using a conversational, less formal tone. It’s a bit more close to being vulnerable, but also more human.

BG: Alan, I know you’re tired of folks pointing to ancient cave paintings as proof of us being the storytelling animal, but like oral epics handed down through the ages, those paintings illustrate the human urge to narrate and share our experiences. We just gotta tell stories—we all do it, introverts as well as extroverts—to make sense of the world, to convey information and culture and to connect to each other. Lately we’ve been hearing a lot from neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists such as Michael Gazzaniga about how the brain is hardwired to tell and to listen to stories. Psychologist Robin Dunbar’s studies show how gossip arose as the glue to keep communities together. Indeed, we are so primed to attend to stories, that when someone gives us the cue that a story is beginning, we are all ears.

NA: How can an introvert get more comfortable storytelling? I’m going to start to answer my own question: rest up, prepare, and practice. But I wasn’t particularly well rested when I arrived at the Baruch symposium, you only gave me two minutes to prepare, and I didn’t get to practice—and I was fine. Had I practiced, I would have fine-tuned my story and polished my delivery. What tips do you have for introverts who want to become good storytellers?

BG: I agree about resting up, preparing, and practicing. Nothing better. I also recommend that you think about what makes a good story and a powerful storytelling moment, and why you want to tell stories and to whom. Spend some time reading and viewing and listening to stories and storytellers. Play around with stories on your own, just for fun. As Richard Kearney explains in On Stories, “It takes two to story.” So in the moment, when you look up at your audience, take a deep, centering breath, and imagine you are telling it to one person you know who will want to hear you tell that story.


Yes, Barbara. That works for both telling the prepared tale and the impromptu story. The activity we facilitated at the symposium was meant to get people speaking from their emotional centers. There is a lot to be said for improvising stories, but that reinforces the common perception of storytelling as performance. I am more interested in “story making” which could be writing, photography, media, blogging, even tweeting. Small, regular acts of creativity are leverage points, especially when you try things you think you cannot do well. This is the premise of the ds106 Daily Create which offers an online prompt for people to practice expressing their creativity. To me, the elements are something that are low stakes, in public, and amid others trying their own acts of creative expression.


NA: Some people are not good at telling jokes. Are they the same ones who aren’t good storytellers?

AL: Not necessarily. I don’t tell jokes because I can never memorize them. A crucial difference is that a joke is usually someone else’s story. And this idea of “not being good” is the self-talk that keeps us from trying new things.

NA: Tell me a story about a slice of life through your eyes as an introvert.

AL: I’ve gotten slightly less uncomfortable, but receptions, parties, bars—socializing with strangers—is a bit short of terrifying, and I can now downgrade them to just daunting. I learned that you can go a long way being an active listener. For each of us introverts, it seems like there are three people who like to talk. A lot. Yet there is an art to conversation, and it’s not just nodding.

My ex-wife taught me opening questions that work wonderfully—asking people where they grew up, about their family, about their work. But the best thing is to ask about an item such as jewelry you notice on them. At the dinner for symposium facilitators, I asked the woman seated next to me, whom I just met, about a unique tattoo on her forearm. This opened a personal connection between us because I had a story about my own recently acquired tattoo. Starting conversations by asking sincere questions helps me break down my own aversion to potentially draining situations.


If I had my druthers, I’d spend most of my time growing vegetables, bicycling Vermont’s roads, immersing myself in a world of written words, or hanging out behind my camera—now there’s the perfect art form for the introvert—avoiding group social situations whenever possible. So my choice of careers is perhaps surprising: first as a college teacher and now helping communities and organizations use storytelling for engagement and change efforts. I am always in front of people—yikes—performing.


In my early years I overcompensated by giving off too much energy to the room, something I discovered when my students nicknamed me “Maddog Ganley,” a reality reinforced when as a keynote speaker I was introduced to an audience in Sweden as a tsunami. Since then I’ve learned to find a balance that’s comfortable for me and everyone else!

AL: If you are passing out druthers, mine are visits to Barbara’s home in Vermont to join in whatever she's doing—introverts do not just stay at home alone.

NA: You bet, Alan! Great point about introverts. When we’re not absorbed in quiet activities like thinking, reading, researching, and story making, we can enjoy hanging out with our friends and colleagues—and even take that opportunity to tell a few stories in real time.

Ganley and Levine will return next week for a second part of this interview in which they will tell you how to translate your written stories into the spoken word. They will also offer their favorite inspirations and resources in the world of storytelling.