Storytellers have more fun.
“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” —Ira Glass
We all want to be interesting. We want people to listen to us, to like us. We want them to date us, hire us, elect us, acquit us. We want influence.
Too bad we’re so inherently uninteresting. School, kids, jobs, bills — no time for chance meetings with eccentric strangers or revelations of the beauty of nature. No time for adventure.
Yet, if we look at the people we find most interesting, we realize that few of them have climbed Mount Everest or broken a wild mustang. Most have never wrestled an alligator or been embroiled in a covert operation. They haven’t seen a whole lot of real excitement.
What makes them so compelling?
Interesting people often lead surprisingly ordinary lives, but they are not ordinary. What sets them apart is their ability to tell a good story.
A show about nothing.
In the Seinfeld episode, ‘The Pitch’, Jerry is approached by an NBC executive and invited to pitch a sitcom to the network. Jerry and George are at Monks trying to come up with something, when they come up with nothing, instead.
JERRY: So, we go to NBC, we tell them we’ve got an idea for a show about nothing.
JERRY: They say, “What’s your show about?” I say, “Nothing.”
GEORGE: There you go.
JERRY: I think you may have something there.
Seinfeld was a show about nothing. Nothing is really about nothing, of course. Stuff happens—riding in a cab, waiting in line, watching a movie, going on a date. But, view these mundane situations through the right lens, maybe one that’s a little warped and exaggerated, and they become something more.
Jerry Seinfeld has built his career as a comedian finding humor in vacuum cleaners and cereal boxes. He knows how to tell a good story, no matter what the subject matter.
The tale is in the telling.
Everyday storytellers weave the ordinary and spectacular into a larger narrative and invite us to follow along. Like a good stand-up comic, they have trained their eyes and ears to find meaning and humor in life—the inconsistencies, eccentricities, and injustices that make up our world—and convey those observations in a way that helps us make new discoveries ourselves.
Andrew Stanton, the writer of Toy Story and Wall-E, said this in a recent Ted talk:
“Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending. Knowing that everything you’re saying from the first sentence to the last is leading to a singular goal and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understanding of who we are as human beings.”
For many, social media began as a way to share what you were having for lunch. I’m eating a sandwich. This pizza is really good. Wish I had some ice cream (frowny face).
Today, the most successful Twitter accounts inform, entertain, and provoke conversation. 140 characters is plenty of space to communicate something valuable to your followers, whether from your daily life or another source.
Writer Teju Cole used Twitter to share a series of “small fates” — true stories of everyday people meeting their untimely end, sourced from international newspapers:
During the small fates project, Cole’s Twitter feed was hypnotic. Peeking into these otherwise forgotten lives, often from across the world or decades in the past, was powerful.
Twitter is a great place to hone storytelling skills. It isn’t easy to entertain, amuse, or affect emotion in 140 characters. Writing concisely is a challenge. But, you have the advantage of immediate feedback. When your tweets hit the mark your followers will favorite, retweet, and reply. Eventually, they will increase.
Telling stories in community is a beautiful thing. When I post something on Facebook I am inviting comments, debate, and collaboration. Anecdotes are more entertaining when your friends or followers add their own perspective. That’s how stories grow and communities form.
Brands want to be interesting, too. They need to be interesting. This is accomplished the same way as it is for individuals: by telling good stories.
Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS, has said that customers don’t buy shoes from TOMS, they buy a story. Customers connect with the company’s mission—donating a pair of shoes for every pair sold—and want to participate.
Not every company has roots in social good, but every company has something to say. Every company is made up of interesting people with vision and creativity, people who encounter challenges and deal with success or failure. There are stories to be mined that people can connect with.
Stories need to be told.
Anyone can tell a story. Figure out what you have to say and find your voice. Watch for coincidence, oddity, and surprise. If you have kids, listen to them. They see the world without the baggage of years, and without context and information adults take for granted.
Think about what you bring to the table. What interests you? What excites you? Share those things and you’ll find that there are others who want to listen.
You can swim the English Channel or break the world record for juggling while walking backwards. But, even the most interesting experiences still need to be communicated. You still need to convince people to care.
That’s what makes an interesting person interesting, and what makes everyday storytelling so important.
UPDATE: Last November, I took my own advice. As a result, I was given the opportunity to create WHAT THE DINOSAURS DID LAST NIGHT, a new book co-authored with my wife about a family tradition we call Dinovember. The book will be published by Little, Brown and Co. on Oct. 28, but it’s available for preorder now. So pick up a copy!