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Seven Deadly Storytelling Sins (part 2)

by Doug Lipman

Previously, I wrote about the first four deadly storytelling mistakes. Here are the remaining three.

Mistake #5: Being Too General

This mistake is the flip side of Mistake 4 (Giving Too Many Scenes). It is especially common in business, teaching, and other environments where we tell because we have an idea to communicate. Stories without a specific place, time, and action aren't really stories. They lack the compelling sense of "virtual experience" that comes when we imagine the specific. Emotional power comes from experiencing specific moments; don't withold that power from your listeners.

The fix: Find the moments that further your MIT (see Mistake #4). Imagine them fully, then be sure you each scene has a specific place, moment in time, character(s) and action. Now experiment with telling the moments to helping listeners. Your goal is to find the minimal description that creates the maximal imaginative impact on your listeners.

Mistake #6: Sending Self-Destructive Messages

When you talk, you communicate through many channels at once: words, tone of voice, gestures, posture, facial expression, pacing, etc. At any moment, some of those channels will carry conscious "messages": what you're saying. Simultaneously, other channels will carry meta-messages (messages about the messages): how you say it.

Many of us have been trained to focus exclusively on what we're saying (our words and maybe our gestures) to the point where we ignore or even send the wrong information through the channels that tell our listeners how to interpret our message (our tone of voice, eye behaviors, posture, etc.).

For example, if you "script" a gesture, you are likely to send a meta-message (perhaps with your eyes) that calls attention to the gesture. It's as though, in addition to raising your arm expressively, you are also saying "Isn't that an expressive gesture?" That second message will completely alter the effect of the gesture!

The fix: Be very careful where you focus your attention as you tell. For most people, the best effects come from keeping these three things in mind: 1) The images of your story; 2) Your MIT (see Mistake #4); and 3) Your intention toward your listeners. (Your intention may be to instruct, to warn, to encourage, to delight, etc.)

Mistake #7: Doing It All Alone

You can't learn to communicate by yourself. Beyond a certain point, the more you try to create, adapt, learn, and tell stories alone, the more difficult the task of communicating through stories becomes. To be sure, you will spend some time alone pondering and reviewing your story. But avoid the false assumption that working on and telling a story is primarily an individual activity!

The fix: To tell well and easily, you need other people. At the minimum, you need willing listeners. But your telling will improve even more quickly if you also have helpers who agree to assist you by a combination of listening, appreciating what you've done well so far, and asking questions aimed to help you discover your storytelling strengths.

Going for the Flow

When you avoid all seven of these deadly mistakes, your storytelling will stop sputtering and begin to flow. You and your listeners will experience ever more often the joy of mutual giving to each other. You will unleash the full beauty of your art - and the full power of your message.

(Read part 1 of this article)


Copyright © Doug Lipman



Doug Lipman

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman