Some of us weren’t blessed with the gift of charm. We can read all the self-help books, absorb all the tips, and take every Dale Carnegie course, but we’ll never own a room with our charisma. That doesn’t mean we lack the ability to woo a crowd; it only means we need different tools to get the job done.
There’s a weapon inside you, probably lying dormant, that will always outclass a snazzy personality — a weapon that dates back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
In prehistoric times, humans would gather around a campfire and tell stories. It’s the most ancient art form, a gift we all possess but have allowed to atrophy.
Through story, we not only entertain, teach, and captivate a crowd but also present ourselves to the world in the way we want others to perceive us. But not all stories create this effect.
A narrative must follow a specific format and adhere to a set of rules. A former mentor of mine called these campfire stories, in deference to the kind of tales our ancestors likely told around campfires — descriptive adventures that demonstrated how we overcame great challenges.
Today, we don’t gather around open flames to tell stories. We rarely even tell them at the dinner table, but that latent skill still exists within you. Here’s how to revive it.
Pick three experiences
Everyone needs three quality stories about themselves. Think about the experiences that shaped you. Each one should give people a window into explaining why you are who you are.
There should be an implicit lesson your audience can take from it. You can determine the lesson beforehand or allow it to emerge as you polish your narrative.
In a story about my parents’ divorce, I began with the lesson: You don’t have to let other people’s actions influence how you live your life. That idea influenced how I framed it.
If you struggle to come up with ideas, use these prompts to stimulate your mind:
- An experience from childhood that helps explain your present.
- A relationship that shaped you.
- A business or professional success or failure.
- A personal battle or health issue you overcame.
- A crazy adventure you took. I don't mean a vacation to Costa Rica. I mean a life adventure, like quitting your job on a whim to join a traveling circus.
How to craft your campfire story
Now that you have your three story ideas, it’s time to put them together.
The big picture
How do you want to frame yourself? Do you want people to think you’re courageous, daring, or generous? That message must be implicit, never explicit. Avoid using flattering adjectives and nouns to describe yourself. It’s the fastest way to repel a crowd.
Let your audience determine your qualities by interpreting your narrative. People may question bold claims you make about your character, but they’ll never doubt what they conclude for themselves.
Start with a brief setup. Give us only what we need to know, and if possible, leave a cliffhanger.
I was eleven years old, glued to this new channel called MTV. Mom and dad ordered me to their bedroom for the third time in fifteen minutes. Neither showed a hint of anger at my brazen disobedience. So, yeah, I was a bit worried.
That’s one of my openings. The bit about MTV gives you the setting. My parents’ peculiar behavior lets the audience know something is about to happen.
After the setup, jump into the conflict. Something in your world changes, which impacts how your life takes shape.
When my brother and sister were comfortably seated on their bed, my mom said, ‘mommy and daddy don’t love each other anymore.’
This is the inciting event, the catalyst that sets everything in motion. There should be no doubt that your world has just entered a void of uncertainty with dire consequences.
The fork in the road
When tension rises, we look for a way to resolve it. That typically brings us choices — what we call a fork in the road. Path A leads you to a dark place while Path B leads to salvation, or at least, a not so dark place.
Tell us a little bit about your journey to that fork, but only what we need to know. Be mindful of the plot and the attention you now command from your audience. Don’t squander it.
In real life, we may face multiple forks in the road but in oral storytelling, limit it to one or two. Pick the most dramatic ones.
In the story about my parents’ divorce, I had two choices: accept it and move on with my life, or find ways to resist it. I faced these options against the backdrop of a new school district with no friends. Notice how this was an internal battle I faced with external pressure points.
I made the wrong choice back then, but as you already know, stories captivate us more when you make poor decisions on your way to victory.
Here, you make the right choice (or at least a final choice). You face a crossroads. Either continue on your non-constructive path or choose another direction.
Now in tenth grade, I had gone two years with no friends and near failing grades. What was the point of being angry? It was getting me nowhere… On the first day of school, I struck up a conversation with Leah and asked if she wanted to hang out later. She flashed me a look of mild disgust. I don’t even remember if she said no…
When Leah said no, that was a reversal — a point at which it looked like I had overcome my challenge and won, but then in a twist, it turned out to be a mini defeat. We like our heroes to win, but it makes you seem more humble when someone trips you on your way to the finish line.
Remember, your audience or listeners will compare themselves to you. If you succeed too easily, you might come off as unrelatable, even arrogant. Show us how the world beat the shit out of you before you eeked out your win. Don’t hide the embarrassing parts; it’s what makes you interesting, even likable.
In this final phase, you reveal how your life changed, perhaps how it affected your worldview. For oral stories, it’s best to keep this information to a minimum. If you nail the transformation phase, your audience will draw their own conclusions. An extra line at the end can help them connect the dots.
When I married twenty years later, I vowed never to put my kids through that. So far, I’ve kept that promise.
If I were telling this story to people who already knew me, I’d omit that last line and end with this.
You know, I never really did become popular or well-liked. I still struggle with interpersonal relationships. That’s why I work hard on the ones I do have.
It’s the kind of line that triggers an AHA moment. “That explains a lot about him,” or “Now his life kind of makes more sense.”
How to make your story a masterpiece
Campfire stories aren’t performances. They’re informal tellings. You‘ll script your story, but it must seem like you’re pulling it from memory.
When you write, pretend you’re in a bar or coffee shop, talking to a close friend. Approaching it from that lens will help you choose words that sound informal, more suited to a dining table than a stage.
If you’re not the charismatic type, you’ll find this challenging, but if you practice, you’ll build confidence, and that matters more than anything else.
When speaking, make brief eye contact with each person in your group. Inflect your voice at key points. Use your hands and body when appropriate. Practice strategic pauses; they work best after mini-cliffhangers. It’s the small details that matter.
Interpreting negative feedback
Pay attention to the body language of your audience. If someone whips out their phone or dozes off, think of it as feedback. My mentor used to drill this lesson into me:
It’s never the audience’s fault if they’re tuning out. It’s always the storyteller’s responsibility to engage their audience. Always.
Take note of where you’re losing people and triage that part of your story. Try rewording, removing it, or reimagining it. When in doubt, follow this rule: each sentence must compel your audience to the next one. If it doesn’t, then fix it.
Humans have been telling stories for as long as we could communicate. The gift is within you, even if the muscle has atrophied. Once you master the skill, you’ll possess the tools to win over any crowd.