Venues such as slams, This American Life and others are rife with personal stories. And why not? When we hear a story about another’s experience it helps us connect more deeply and realize that our experiences, no matter how funny, weird or tragic, are part of the human experience.
Personal stories can range from short pieces about walking the dog to extended performances about life changing experiences. Regardless of the length or topic, these stories all share a couple of ingredients that you should keep in mind as you craft your personal story:
- Know what your story is about. Is it about your relationship with your parent even though it's a funny anecdote about a car ride? Is it about coming of age via summer camp?
- They are relatable. Regardless of the events in the story, there is something there others can identify with. You’re talking about your trip to Outer Mongolia? Great! Did you feel lost, alone, confused, excited? Did you have a meaningful moment of connection with someone? These are things people can relate to, even if they’ve never been to Outer Mongolia.
- Truth is flexible. So the dog fell into the bathtub and needed help getting out. The story might be funnier if you spend some time embellishing just how soaking wet and sudsy the dog, you, the floor and the walls ended up becoming.
- Remove the stuff only you care about. If it isn’t relevant to the story of your college graduation that Great-Aunt Mathilda was married twice and her first husband was a carpenter then we don’t need to hear it.
- Make sure it’s a story. Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Is there a point you’re trying to make?
- The story is appropriate for your audience. I would not recommend telling a sexually graphic story to a group of religious celibates (unless they’ve asked you to).
- You aren’t abusing your audience. Their job is to listen to your story and to connect to you through it. Their job is not to be your therapist. If you have difficulty with parts of your story make sure you’ve worked through them before you tell it. Additionally, your job as a teller is to let the audience sink into the story and imagine themselves in your shoes. If you decide you only want shock value then you’re denying them the opportunity to really become you.
Storyteller Elizabeth Ellis says that there are four basic kinds of personal stories: The ha-ha story, where we laugh. The ah-ha story about the moment of discovery. The ah story with the moment of emotional change or resolution. And the amen story with spiritual meaning. Know what your story is about. Get rid of the extraneous parts. Tell it like you mean it. Practice a few times. And your listeners will come right along with you.
Next week we’ll take a look tall tales and ghost stories. And keep telling. We can't wait to hear you.
(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer