Ever begin telling a story, then your words get away from you? You realize you’ve been talking for way too long and you’ve totally lost track of why you started talking in the first place. Now your conversation partner is just staring back at you, her eyes screaming “When will this be done?!” Yeah, it happens to the best of us.
How to Tell a Story in Conversation
When it comes to conversation, good storytelling follows a slightly different set of rules than novels and movies do. Most people pick up a book or sit down to watch a movie because they have a vague idea of what that story is going to be, and it’s piqued their interest. Which brings us to step one –
1. Give a preview.
Getting someone to listen to your story is kind of like asking them to get in your car. It helps if you tell them where you’re going. While we all expect our friends to be good listeners, we must also remember that listening does take work. If you launch into a story without telling someone where it’s going, you’ve basically strapped them in for an indefinite, ill-defined road trip. Their first thought is going to be “Where is this going?” and second, “How long is it going to take?” Which brings us to our next step –
2. Get to the point.
Think of the way YouTube ads work. If an ad catches your attention in the first five seconds, you just might stick around and watch the whole thing. If it doesn’t, you hit skip. But your poor friend has no “skip” button for your long-winded story. If you don’t catch her attention in the beginning, she’ll just be holding their breath for the end.
3. Skip the backstory.
Sure, context is important. But it’s more important to dive right in with the crux of the matter and let your friend ask questions later. It is a conversation after all. Rather than droning on with extra background information, skip right to the reason you want to tell that story in the first place.
For instance, “My mom’s dog ran away,” is much more interesting than. “Yesterday, I was standing in the kitchen washing dishes when all of the sudden my phone rang. I put down the dish to pick it up, and it was my mother…” Why does it matter that you were doing the dishes? If your friend wants to know what you were doing when you got the call, she’ll ask!
4. Leave space for questions.
Don’t try to squeeze every little detail out of your story. Let your friend ask a few questions to be part of the conversation. “My mom’s dog ran away,” elicits a few follow up questions like, “When?” “How did you know?” and “What happened next? Did she find her dog?” Let your friend’s curiosity build, but be conversational about it. Obviously, you’re not going to tantalize your friend by teasing the hot gossip of your mother’s dog, but you are inviting them to participate in the story a little bit.
5. Fill it in as you go.
Once you’ve given a little verbal trailer of your story and your friend has expressed some interest in hearing it, you can launch into the retelling. If your friend didn’t ask any questions, she’s either rude or your story isn’t interesting. In either case, maybe save it for another friend. If she cares to hear you out, start filling in the details. Now, you can tell them the time, place, how you felt, etcetera. And your friend will actually give a hoot because she asked you for the details.
6. Quit while you’re ahead.
Don’t milk the spotlight. A good conversation means giving your friend a turn to speak. Remember, if she wants to know more, she’ll ask. Now, it’s your turn to put on your listening ears and give your friend the stage. And remember, ask questions! You’re on your way to becoming an expert conversationalist.