Most conversations include at least one story. Some longer conversations include two dozen or more stories! When you tell someone a story, it’s really important to you that the person you are talking to listens. It makes you feel good when they “oooooh” and “ahhhhhh.” When people gloss over your stories you feel let down and sometimes hurt. Our stories are important to us and we want them to be important to others.
Everything you have become today is part of your life story, the sum of all of your stories about your life. It means the world to you when people are fascinated by your stories.
Remember when the little Texas girl, Jessica McClure fell in the well and got trapped? It took three days to get her out. The nation watched. Would she live or die? Could the rescuers get her in time? That happened in 1987, you don’t even know Jessica but you probably remember it to this day! Each year millions of people die and experience incredible events. The story of Jessica was a great story and it unfolded right before our eyes. The media calls these kinds of stories, “human interest” stories. They sell news shows because people are engaged by the drama. Each of us has at least one human interest story to tell about ourselves. A time when you survived something dramatic. You overcame an illness. You persisted until you succeeded. You helped someone in great need and someone found out about it and told someone else who told the news and then you made the news. All of these are great stories.
Telling stories well and listening to them with fascination are two important factors in maintaining good communication. You’d think it would be easy to tell and listen to stories but this isn’t the case and “flubbing the story” is the first of the mistakes we make when communicating.
There are 10 ways to flub a story.
- Be boring.
- Talk too long.
- Speak too slowly.
- Speak in a garbled way so that people can’t understand you.
- Exaggerate when telling your story.
- Ignore feedback during your story telling.
- Respond to other people’s stories with a story of your own.
- Poke holes in other people’s special stories.
- Overtly brag about yourself just a little too much.
- Not telling your stories with intention.
Let’s look at each of these 10 ways to flub a story and then let’s talk about how to tell a story so people will listen, be fascinated and be asking for more!
1) Be boring.
Being boring centers around being focused on yourself. Even when telling stories you must be paying attention to the person who is listening to you. You must think ahead of time, “Why do they want to hear this story?” “How can I tell this story so it is interesting to them?”
Your stories will usually be about your experiences. How you tell your stories and how you position yourself in your stories will determine just how interested the other person will be.
2) Talk for too long.
If you are in an everyday conversation, you probably have less than one minute to tell your story. Learn to tell what I call a “thumb nail” or a “Reader’s Digest condensed version” of your story.
I remember when my sister was a pre-teen she would come home from the movies and virtually recite all the lines of the movie line for line, scene for scene. My eyes would glaze over by the time she got past the opening credits. 30 minutes later she would finish and I would be nodding my head. I loved my sister. I just didn’t have the heart to tell her. Over the years she learned to tell the “Reader’s Digest condensed version”. Today she is an executive with Johnson and Johnson.
3) Speak too slowly.
People have very short attention spans. Most companies pitch their products in thirty second commercials on television. The newest wave of men’s magazines include the best sellers Stuff and Maxim. These publications feature “articles” as short as a paragraph. Our attention spans are so short that USA Today seems to be filled with articles that are far too detailed for a lot of people. The message needs to be delivered quickly and concisely in print and in everyday conversation.
One of the greatest problems people have when telling a story is speaking far too slowly. Think of the people who are enjoyable to listen to. Comedians. Robin Williams: Speaks quickly. Dennis Miller: Speaks quickly. Bill Cosby: Speaks moderately. George Wallace: Speaks quickly. Billy Crystal: Moderate to fast paced. Jerry Seinfeld: Moderate to fast paced. There aren’t a lot of people who make you laugh who also speak slowly when they are telling a story. Yes, there is an exception to every rule, but here is the rule: Speak a little more quickly and you have a better chance of having your story heard and enjoyed.
4) Speak in a garbled way so that people can’t understand you.
Many people look away when they are communicating with you. They think you have a universal translator that translates all languages including garbled English. Remember that millions of people are hard of hearing and they have little chance of hearing the average woman (who speak at frequencies much higher than men) speak at all. When you speak, look at the person you are talking to. Speak clearly. Speak loud enough so they can hear you. All of this may seem obvious but having observed thousands of people communicate, I promise you that this one mistake causes big problems in relationships; problems that could easily be avoided.
5) Exaggerate when telling your story.
“…and there were millions of people watching the parade!”
(There were 850 according to newspaper accounts.)
“…I never even looked at her!”
“…before he started the diet he weighed 300 pounds!”
(OK it was really 240.)
A story worth telling is worth telling accurately. Tell it with enthusiasm, zeal and intensity. Tell it accurately. It’s vital that all of your communication is true without being critical or unnecessarily unkind. Exaggeration is an invitation for people to not listen or care.
6) Ignore feedback during your story telling.
“…and then she comes in the door and she has this skirt on that is so ridiculously short. I mean who is she kidding. She’s not a teenager anymore.” (friend nods politely while fighting back a yawn, eyes begin to glaze over) “…do people have no sense of decency anymore? I just wonder what makes some people tick. Don’t people pay attention to what they are wearing and see how it makes everybody feel?”
(friend shrugs and nods with feigned frustration)
The woman telling the story about the short skirted office friend could have spared her listener the despair of this antiquated story had she only seen the feigned frustration, the shrug, the yawn, but it was not something the storyteller was looking for. It should have been. It’s critical to always pay attention to how people are receiving the stories you tell.
You must pay close attention to your listener’s body language while you are telling your story. Is their body language telling you they are interested, or impatient for the end? Are their lips moving, ready to jump in on your story, or are they listening with awe. Not learning to understand the body language of other people is one of the mistakes we make in communication.
7) Respond to other people’s stories with a story of your own.
“…and I went to Cancun and you should have seen the beaches. They were beautiful. The Princess Hotel was absolutely breathtak…”
“You stayed at the Princess. It’s really not bad you know. On our third trip to Cancun we stayed at The Princess, in the Oceanview Suite. They reserved it for us because John helped with the design of the building in ’98. I didn’t really like The Princess that much. It was a wannabee hotel. But since then we’ve stayed at the new Sheraton. It just has everything and they take care of you like you are royalty there. I think if we go back and don’t go to Tahiti on our next trip, we’re going to stay there again.”
“Cancun sure is nice.”
(The energy has been discharged from her being and the desire to communicate further with her friend went with her energy.)
This is one of the really sad things we do in communicating with others. Instead of teasing out the rest of the story from our friend, we immediately jump in with a story of our own. Research shows that people feel better when you pursue their story to it’s completion, then disclose (share) something of your own.
8) Poke holes in other people’s special stories.
They are telling you about their adventure to the audit at the IRS office.
“I was so nervous, I’m driving to the IRS office and I’m sitting there thinking, oh man, I have to remember to NOT talk. Shut up. Be quiet. Don’t say anything.”
“What did you do to get audited?”
“Huh? I filed Schedule C and that means…”
“Did you report all of your income?”
“I think so.”
“You THINK so? What are you nuts? You have to report all of your income.”
“Of course you have to report all of your income. Anyway, I’m on the way to the IRS office and…”
“Did you overstate your deductions?”
“Of course not. I …”
“If you overstate your deductions they will bust your …”
“I KNOW that and I didn’t. Let’s just drop the whole thing.”
“O.K. I was just trying to help.”
And so it goes. Our storyteller was preparing to tell the story of her big victory over the IRS auditor and our storyteller’s friend poked big holes in the story. So big that it took all the fun and excitement out of sharing the story.
The appropriate response would have been to listen with fascination and a sense of curiosity, saving all questions and comments for much, much later.
9) Overtly brag about yourself too much.
“I don’t want to brag but the place would have gone under without me. I was there every day at dawn and stayed til the sun went down. I built the company and once they had 100 employees there was no appreciation at all. They down sized me. It was unbelievable. I literally designed almost every major piece that we produced and when it came time for them to decide who to let go, it was me. I couldn’t believe it. They never would have gone public without me. They never would have met their payroll without me. I just can’t believe they didn’t see what I was worth to them.”
True or not, bragging never pays. There are so many effective ways to bolster your reputation and communication credentials when talking to people that you never need to overstate your contribution to a relationship, a project, a business, a deal, or anything. Learn how to tell a great story where you were a hero without bragging at all!
10) Not telling your stories with intention.
Before you begin speaking, over-ride the compulsion to blurt out your story.
What is the intention of your story?
Why are you going to tell this story?
Will anyone who listens to this story be hurt by what you say?
You might think that it’s not that important to communicate exactly what you mean but remember December 2002? Quite often someone tells a story and they haven’t thought about who they are telling the story to or how it might easily be misinterpreted to mean something else.
Trent Lott, A Mississippi Republican got himself stuck in a public relations nightmare and gave up the dream of a lifetime in December of 2002. Destined to become the House Majority Leader in January of 2003, he made a critical mistake that everyone should be attentive to and learn from.
Speaking at a party honoring Senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, he opened Pandora’s box and never knew what his words of appreciation for the elderly Senator would do. The drama of misunderstood words caused even the President of The United States to distance himself from Lott.
Speaking for the President, Ari Fleischer said after one speech that Bush was not calling for Lott to step aside as Leader or as Senator.
“The president does not think that Sen. Lott needs to resign,” Fleischer said.
The problem? Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican who ran as a third-party candidate for president in 1948 as a segregationist had changed his views over the ensuing 50 years of public service. But the comments by Lott made it appear that Lott was still in favor of them. In 1948 most blacks in many southern U.S. states, including Mississippi, were not allowed to vote.
Lott actually didn’t say anything that was racist but the interpretation by his adversaries was easy to spin into the public mind. Shortly after the speech, Lott called Bush, and his office issued a statement saying the president was right.
“Senator Lott agrees with President Bush that his words were wrong and he is sorry,” said Lott spokesman Ron Bonjean. “He repudiates segregation because it is immoral.”
Lott expressed similar sentiments in his call to Bush, Fleischer said.
So just what did Lott say at the Thurmond celebration?
“We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years,”
Later he would have to clarify what he meant but it was too late, he hadn’t thought through how is words might effect the minds of his greatest adversaries.
“I’m sorry for my words,” said Lott, who has said he would not step aside as Senate Republican leader. Speaking to WABC radio in New York and then on BET days later, Lott said he had wanted to honor “Thurmond the man” but not back segregationist policies.
The Congressional Black Caucus called for a formal censure of Lott, saying anything less would be seen as approval of his remarks by Bush, Congress and the Republican party. In Mississippi, civil rights officials said his apology was insufficient, and accused him of having enduring ties to groups that are believed to have racist views. Several major U.S. newspapers published editorials demanding Republicans reject Lott as their Senate leader.
A few misunderstood words caused Lott his reputation and drove many of those closest to him to leave his side.
What is the lesson learned?
Lesson: When telling your stories, think about how they will be received by your listeners and the people your listeners will talk to. You aren’t likely to ever be under media scrutiny like a political leader, but the point is clear. Think before speaking.
In a conversation with friends, business colleagues and the like you will often hear them say something which frustrates you. You will hear things that you don’t understand. Because you really want to know what the person means and feels, you must learn to tease out the intention.
Did they mean what you thought they just said?
Did they mean what you heard?
In Lott’s case a friend might say to the Senator, “So are you saying you liked the way Thurmond thought about segregation in 1948.”
He might reply, “Of course not. What a stupid thought. I meant that I really admire Thurmond.”
It is that simple and difficult. When you don’t understand their story, seek to understand before criticizing the person!
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