The Art of Storytelling

Julie Zhuo
Aug 7, 2013 · 5 min read

From the age of 12 until I left home, college-bound, this is how Sunday afternoons happened: my mother and I (Dad was working in China at the time) sat at our tiny birch veneer dining table over bowls of soup wontons for lunch. Once the last drop had been slurped away, my mother would stand up. “How about dessert?” she’d ask. “Sure,” I’d say, playing along. And a smile would bloom on the corner of her lips as she’d go to the pantry and fetch a bag of sunflower seeds—shell-on, roasted, salted and slightly sweet.

The seeds were one of the many gifts Dad brought back from Shanghai, tucked in the folds of his suitcase, bags and bags of them much to my mother’s and my delight. They were the perfect snack for a “sophisticated mouth” (Mom’s words)—challenging to eat and requiring dexterity of teeth and tongue. They were a slow and deliberate food, as much enjoyment gained from the process as from the tiny nib of flavor extracted at the end. The bowl of seeds my mom brought to the table would serve as our hourglass, our measurement of how many lazy afternoon hours we’d whittle away.

You see, the stories always began over sunflower seeds.

My mother wouldn’t strike you as a natural storyteller, what, with her aversion towards reading books and her sharp, tongue-clucking rationality. Her life path followed the straight and narrow—a happy childhood in a big family, a choice to follow my dad to America for college and for the dream. She understands hard work in a way that I’ll never be able to fully grasp. She respects rules, authority, and occasionally the old wives’ tale. She’s only ever dated (and married) my father. I am her only child.

All this is to say that my mother is no drama queen. Her lifestyle is not generally conducive to crazy, juicy stories.

And yet, for the majority of my adolescence, the stories she told were how I first came to experience the wildness and immensity of the world. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in those afternoons spent expertly infiltrating the cores of sunflower seeds, we were indulging in one of the oldest rituals of all: the oral tradition—learning through verbal storytelling.

What stories did she tell me in those countless lazy hours? Stories about people, mostly. Stories about her and my dad, and the people that they knew—brothers and cousins and aunts and uncles and classmates. Nothing you’d read about in newspapers. Nothing hair-raising or astonishing. And yet. Despite my being a surly, hair-chewing, too-cool-for-my-rentz kind of teenager, I was captivated. I listened—procrastinating IM and homework and video games—as she wove tales of how she met my Dad (and the two other guys my grandmother encouraged her to date instead) and how my grandma met my grandpa (and didn’t break up with him even when he was stranded in Singapore during the war), and how my uncle’s best friend was jilted by my mother’s cousin (and the rift in the family it caused henceforth).

Through those stories, she taught me about human relationships—the complex ways in which people are entangled. The way they lift each other up or (often unwittingly) cut each other down. How to judge character. You can’t learn that sort of thing in any classroom. You can only learn from experience—or in my case—the experiences of many others as relayed to me by my mother over sunflower seeds on Sundays.

Why were my mom’s stories so interesting? I didn’t ask myself that until much later, when I recognized just how much I had retained and relied on those stories. It is an astonishing power. How did she do it? When I look back now, there are three things that stand out to me.

The first is that her characters felt real. In many ways, of course they were real—they were about actual people, many whom I’d met before. But when you’re a teenager, it’s hard to actually see that. It requires a great leap of the imagination to perceive adults as three-dimensional—to see your own parents as people like you, with decisions and uncertainties, with fluttering hopes and crushing disappointments. (Even as an adult, it is a struggle. How many people would complain about Barack if they knew him personally?)

The thing about good storytelling is that you need to understand the characters wholly. And that was a talent of my mother’s—she never met anybody she took at face value. She was always striving to understand them, to pinpoint their motivations and values. To see them not as a series of events and facts, but a stream—a story in of themselves. She spun her stories in a way that spoke to not just what happened, but why it happened.

What were they thinking? How’d they feel? What prompted them to act that way?

When you know these things, you know a person. And when you know a person, the lessons they can teach you become unlocked.

And that is the second secret of my mother’s: she knew exactly when to connect a real-life situation with a story. Stories are only so valuable if they’re purely told for entertainment—the rollercoaster endorphin rush of a shoot-em-bang-bang action flick, the white-knuckle terror of a horror movie—they’re nice and all. They can make you feel. But you will not be different for it.

True power is the story that connects so deeply it delivers its listeners a new framework with which to approach their own story. My mother shared her own dating woes when I was deciding whether or not to break up with my high school boyfriend. She described to me how her relationship with her best friend evolved once they moved to different cities right before I headed off to college. Timing is everything—the same story told at different times has different levels of effectiveness. We all hear stories filtered through our personal distortion fields, and internalize the ones that best mirror our own lives. Understanding when to dust off and unfurl a story is a key skill of any savvy storyteller.

And finally, my mother’s last rule of good storytelling: show, don’t tell. Telling is advice, and advice doesn’t tend to stick. Especially for teenagers. A well-told, well-selected, story can convey an entire spectrum of meaning and influence without directly having to spell it out.

At the end of the day, my mother knew this well: everything that I—that any of us—experience or will likely ever experience has already been experienced by somebody else. The thing that is missing is how we can thread that perspective from one to another so that the hard lessons of life can be made just a little bit easier, just a little less isolating.

Let’s try a story.

And maybe also a bowl of sunflower seeds.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building…

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager https://amzn.to/2PRwCyW. Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.