How to Become a Better Storyteller

Simple microphone shot on the stage

In my previous blog post, I talked about the power of our stories. But what exactly is a story? And what stories are worth telling? I didn’t really know the answer to these questions until I read a book that really made me a better storyteller. I’m talking about Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks and in this post I’m going to share with you two interesting things I learned from Matt that will make you a better storyteller too, both in English and in your first language.

What’s a story (according to Matt)?

Matthew Dicks is an internationally bestselling author, columnist, blogger, storyteller, podcaster, playwright, and teacher. He’s won storytelling contests multiple times and teaches storytelling and public speaking to individuals, corporations, universities, entrepreneurs, religious institutions, and school districts around the world.

I think we can trust him when it comes to storytelling, can’t we? 

Matt has a precise idea of what a story is. This is what he says on page 26:

Your story must reflect change over time. A story cannot simply be a series of remarkable events. You must start out as one version of yourself and end as something new. The change can be infinitesimal. It need not reflect an improvement in yourself or your character, but change must happen.

Change must happen. Without some sort of change, which might even be extremely small (infinitesimal), your story isn’t really a story. This makes sense to me. If I think about some of my favourite movies and TV series, there is change happening in each of them:

Braveheart – William Wallace, a quiet Scot who wants to live a simple life in the beautiful Scottish countryside turns into a patriotic warrior after the English army kill his wife. Change happens.

 

Home Alone – Kevin McCallister, a kid who can’t stand his family realises he loves them after they accidentally leave him home alone during their Christmas vacation. Change happens.

 

Breaking Bad (TV series) – Walter White, a meek chemistry high school teacher transforms into a ruthless drug dealer after he’s diagnosed with lung cancer. Change happens. 

These are very big changes and in ordinary life we don’t often go through such great personal transformations. Big transformations don’t take place frequently. So, this means that we have only a limited number of stories that are worth sharing, right?

Wrong! 

What stories are worth sharing?

Matt says that we all experience small changes on a daily basis. We might change the way we’ve always thought about someone or something for example, or realise something new about ourselves or other people. He talks about 5-second moments of realisation and transformation that we all go through every day and encourages everybody to capture these moments. 

Here is what he says on page 99 of Storyworthy about these little moments:

Every great story ever told is essentially about a five-second moment in the life of a human being, and the purpose of the story is to bring that moment to the greatest clarity possible. […] These five-second moments are the moments in your life when something fundamentally changes forever. You fall in love. You fall out of love. You discover something new about yourself or another person. Your opinion on a subject dramatically changes. You find forgiveness. You reach acceptance. You sink into despair. You grudgingly resign. You’re drowned in regret. You make a life-altering decision. Choose a new path. Accomplish something great. Fail spectacularly. These are the moments that make great stories.

Here are four of my personal stories based on a 5-second moment that happened in my life: 

  • I thought I would have never been able to use a professional camera. I then took a beginner photography course and learned how to use its basic functions. I realised (5-second moment) that anything might seem impossible unless I start learning more about it. 
  • I thought I wasn’t good at cooking but then saw a friend cook and noticed (5-second moment) he was a complete disaster in the kitchen. I now feel better about my cooking skills.
  • I never had time to work out and felt bad about myself. A friend who works out every day motivated me by telling me what he does to keep fit. I realised it doesn’t take a lot of effort (5-second moment) and I now go for a run four times a week and feel better about myself.
  • I saw a video about how animals are killed for food. I’d never seen such cruelty in my life before (5-second moment) and stopped eating meat.

These little moments can make up the core of a story. They all reflect Matt’s formula:

Story = I was/thought/felt X + some stuff happens + I now am/think/feel Y

I try to apply this little formula when I’m telling my personal stories on Stolaroid Stories, my little storytelling podcast for English learners, and I think that I did this quite well in Susy, Sunset, Gift Card and Bully. In each of these stories there is change.

So, let’s have a look at the following two short stories. One of them isn’t really a story. Can you guess which one? 

Story A: I went on holiday in Asia. I saw many beautiful things and made a lot of friends. The food….the people…wow! It was amazing!

Story B: I went on holiday in Asia. I’d always thought that my culture was the best in the world but after this experience, I changed my mind. I learned to appreciate other cultures and traditions. The food….the people…wow! It was amazing!

It’s just a quick example but I’d say Story B is a better story. It’s more personal and meaningful, and tells everyone that something changed after this travelling experience. Don’t you think?

So, next time you tell a story, in English or in your own language, see if you can incorporate change and, most importantly, don’t feel that only big life events are worthy of a story. Little moments are very special too, just in a different way. 

Learning these fundamental aspects is just one of the many things I learned by reading Storyworthy, a book that has really helped me improve my storytelling skills. But there is much more that Matt has to say about storytelling. Because of this, I decided to organise a reading club not only to read key chapters from the book, but also to discuss them and share ideas and stories with a group of learners and storytelling lovers like you. 

The Storyworthy Book Club started on 12th March 2022 but there will be another one coming up soon.

I hope you’ll join us!

Any thoughts? Send them to me. I reply to every comment

Fabio Cerpelloni is a qualified English teacher, photography and storytelling lover who believes that telling personal stories is the most effective, productive, and meaningful language practice activity you could ever do to improve your English. 

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