Don’t you think that storytelling is an incredibly valuable skill? And not just for speakers and authors. It is simply the most amazing skill if you want to convey a message — in private life just as well as on stage.
… and so I thought I’d share some of the rules I use in my own writing and speaking.
Here are 5 rules and principles I’ve picked up from some of the best storytellers in the world. And as the best storytellers, they also happen to be great speakers, amazing teachers and incredibly inspiring individuals.
Hope you find these 5 principles useful. If so, share the love ❤️
(1) Everyone has a story.
This one is my own observation, having worked in personal growth and transformation, with thousands of people from all around the world over the past 15 years.
Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, has a story.
Or to be more accurate — we all have hundreds of stories. If life has ever taught you a lesson, there’s a story. And here’s how you find it…
(2) A good story is a prequel to your lesson.
Learned this amazing technique from one of my favourite speakers and an incredibly inspiring woman, Lisa Nichols.
Usually, a good story comes before a great AHA! Think of a moment when you had a revelation, a realization or a paradigm shift. The story is what happened before this moment.
I always start with the lesson first. Then rewind back to the prequel of the lesson. That’s where the story hides.
(3) Don’t tell a story. Show it.
This is something every good storyteller knows. I learned it from Cyrus and Salim, the guys behind Goalcast.
Rather than listing down the facts and personal opinions, describe a scene that tells the story. A well crafted scene will hint at the facts and show more subtle undertones… without being subjective, biased or judgmental.
But more than that — a scene makes your story relatable, while facts are just indifferent.
(4) “If a gun is on the wall, it has to shoot.”
This principle is taught in playwriting and it is so famous, it has an official name, “Checkhov’s gun”… Coincidentally, Checkhov is one of my favourite storytellers and playwrites.
Every word in your story has to serve one of the two purposes: (1) develop a character (2) advance the narrative.
Everything else has to go.
(5) Eat your own doogfood
Learned this one from one of my favourite British crime novelists (he’s also a graduate of my own University of Edinburgh), Ian Rankin.
Re-read your story and scratch out 20–30% of it. Make it lean. And do enjoy reading your own writing. Because if you don’t, it’s probably rubbish.
Why bother telling stories?
Finally, a little bonus from my friend and colleague, Liuba, — every idea, every thesis and every theory in you presentation has to be substantiated by a story…
Obviously, to substantiate my 5 principles of storytelling, to illustrate the ideas, I should be telling you a story now.
So here’s the story. It is about finding peace and confidence in the midst of chaos [Principle 2 — a prequel to a lesson].
How do you experience your epiphanies and realizations?
For me, it usually happens in the safety and seclusion of my own bathroom. I know, it’s funny, but there must be a deeper meaning to it— that’s the only place where we let our guard down and allow our minds to flow without restrain.
[We’ll explore the idea that life offers abundance of lessons and stories — Principle 1.]
I could start this story with some dry facts… Such as — I was traveling to deliver a speech at a big forum in Kazakhstan and didn’t make my connection in Istanbul. I was placed in a hotel for the night, but my checked in luggage was stuck in the airport. I was worried about catching another flight next day and making it to the event on time…
… but that would be a boring narrative, a list of indifferent facts. And by all rules, I should be scratching off this paragraph [Principle 5]. Except — I need it for the illustration of the 3rd Principle.
And so, here’s where the story begins…
I was sitting in a faceless hotel room in Istanbul, wondering if I should wear the same T-shirt to bed as I had on me during my last flight. Or if I should go to bed all natural, between the crispy hotel sheets.
There’s charm in having nothing — no luggage, no onward ticket, no plans, no certainty. With nothing to own and worry about, there’s no need to make decisions.
When my mind is free to wonder, I tend to start philosophizing about everyday life situations.
And that’s when it happened!
I was brushing my teeth with a disposable hotel toothbrush (thank god for the towels, soaps and toothbrushes in hotel rooms!) and then I realized. Not so much realized as felt it in my body.
I do not need anything to serve my purpose!
Even if I never see my luggage, if my trip keeps going wrong… as long as I can make it to the stage in time for my presentation, as long as I have my clear mind, my wits and my life’s journey — as long as I have me — I’ll do just fine.
I’m going to deliver a message at a forum. That is the important thing. And the message is in me — it’s in my life’s journey, it’s in my experience, it’s in my lessons. And these cannot be checked in for a flight and lost between the airports.
All I need is me.
And that’s when I felt relief. I felt peace. I felt such lightness as I had never felt before… I was almost sorry to collect my luggage when I finally arrived in Kazakhstan to deliver the speech.
[The luggage has arrived — the gun has shot — Principle 4]
So what is YOUR story?