How to Use Storytelling to Make Meaningful Connections

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I once gave a gift so good, it made the recipient pass out.

Several years ago my husband and I were trying to think of a Christmas gift for his sister Debbie. We wanted to give her something special because she really deserved it. You see Debbie is the ultimate giver, always putting others first. For years she bypassed her own dreams to ensure everyone else achieved theirs.

But Debbie did have a secret passion. She loved Italy. Ever since she was little, she always dreamed about going to Italy. She decorated her house with a Tuscan theme and couldn’t watch Under the Tuscan Sun without crying. For years she longed to go to Italy but for one reason for another, it never came together. She was the classic putter-offer.

So one year we decided to send Debbie to Italy. I had racked up a lot of frequent flier miles from my corporate job and had more than enough to share. We assembled the gift to heighten suspicion and allow for a slow reveal. We gave her a box with a bunch of individually wrapped Italian gifts in it to help give away the theme — a jar of Italian puttanesca sauce, a picture of the Pope, a figurine of a Roman gladiator.

While opening these gifts, she seemed genuine appreciative but somewhat confused. We told her there was one last gift at the bottom of the box.

She reached in and found an envelope which contained a certificate we had made. It read:

This certificate entitles you and a guest to two roundtrip tickets to Italy.

Like an unexpected torrent of rain on a beautiful sunny day, Debbie’s emotions shifted from calm to confusion to disbelief to anger in the span of 15 seconds. Why anger? She thought we were playing a mean joke on her! Like how cruel could someone be?! When we emphatically told her that—Yes! this was a trip to Italy!—she burst into tears and then proceeded to pass out cold on the floor!

Not quite the reaction I had in mind.

After a few minutes, Debbie came to. The waterworks and disbelief continued off and on for the next half hour.

The following year Debbie finally made it to Italy and had her dream come true.

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What is Storytelling?

I shared this story to illustrate the power of storytelling. Storytelling is the use of words and actions to elicit emotions that reveal the elements and images of a story while activating the listener’s imagination. In sharing my story about sending Debbie to Italy I wanted to spark your imagination so you could have the same visceral experience as if you were sitting there watching it happen in real time.

In his best-selling book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, screenwriter Robert McKee argues that stories “fulfill a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living—not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.” He says that there are two ways to move or persuade people: by using conventional rhetoric made up of facts and figures or by combining ideas and images with emotions through the telling of a good story.

Storytelling Tricks Your Brain

Storytelling is captivating, mesmerizing, and can transport you to another place/time/situation with all the feelings and sensations that go along with it. It’s so powerful because your brain doesn’t know the difference. Listening to a captivating story can create the same neurological responses in your brain and biological responses in your body as if the tale were your own experience.

How many times have you finished listening to a fascinating story and could just feel the emotions of it?

When listening to a captivating story, your body will first produce cortisol (the stress hormone) as you learn about the protagonist’s struggle. Next, you get a charge of dopamine (the feel-good hormone) when you follow the emotionally charged events in a story. Finally, as the story reaches a (hopefully rewarding) climax, your brain produces oxytocin which promotes prosocial, empathic behavior. This is the chemical that enables us to identify emotionally with the hero/protagonist in the story. We walk in their shoes. Feel what they feel.

How Storytelling Helps Us Socially Connect

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Hearing a good story takes us out of our pragmatic objective mind where we posture with defenses up. When we listen intently to another person’s story, we follow along with their experience in an intimate way imaging our own participation in the exact same scenario. This unknowingly serves as a catalyst for deeper social connection by eliciting empathy which naturally draws people together through shared similar life experiences.

We also use effective storytelling to reveal things about ourselves without actually coming out and saying them. Through stories, we can convey our beliefs and values, life priorities, capabilities, character, struggles, etc. We’re verbally demonstrating what we’re made of by sharing prior experiences in an evocative way. This delivers unmatched credibility and authenticity which can lend itself to natural social bonding.

A Powerful Message Delivered Through a Story

Imagine you are a person who feels a passion for helping the elderly. You want desperately to evoke the same kind of dedication in others. This is very useful for instance when you need to raise money for a cause or convince someone to take a certain action. When conveying your passion you could speak of it in practical terms:

I volunteer every week at the local senior center because I feel that our oldest generations have so much to share and shouldn’t be forgotten.

Others around you would certainly nod with approval but then quickly forget your conviction. Instead of simply delivering that statement, you could instead use the power of storytelling to draw people in while revealing your core beliefs and commitments.

For example, you could tell your listeners the story of how you developed a bond that lasted years with this old widow named Maria who had no other family but had a lifetime of stories about meeting famous celebrities as a debutante. An opening like this could create any number of rabbit holes of inquiry from now highly curious listeners. You’ve got them hooked for further engagement.

How to Be a Good Storyteller

One may feel a little intimidation about weaving storytelling into his communication repertoire. But there should be no fear as storytelling is rather formulaic. And with practice, it becomes more natural and enjoyable.

Each story has the central characters types around which the story revolves. There’s the protagonist who is the main character. He or she has a clear goal to accomplish or a conflict to overcome. And then there’s the antagonist. Antagonists intend to frustrate protagonists, standing between them and their ultimate goals. The antagonist can appear in any form — a person, place, thing, or situation that represents a tremendous obstacle to the protagonist.

For the sake of illustration, Debbie was the protagonist and never realizing her dream of going to Italy was the antagonist.

The progression of the story then follows a predictive narrative arc with four elements to emotionally lead the listener down a path.

1 - The Hook: This is what catches someone’s attention and entices them to pay closer attention. It could be a thought-provoking question, a curious statement, or the hint of an interesting open-ended idea. If presented well, the hook piques a listener’s curiosity and their desire to know more.

  • When I went to culinary school, one of my favorite instructors was David Letterman’s nephew.

  • Years ago I went to Nicaragua on vacation and ended up buying and rehabbing a house there.

  • I once attended a ceremony on the White House lawn.

(These are all hooks for my own life stories.)

2 - The Build up to Struggle: This is when the protagonist meets the antagonist. It’s the build-up leading to the struggle or challenges the protagonist must overcome. Oftentimes the obstacles come in different forms or in increasing degrees of difficulty. In all cases, this is where the listener feels empathy for the protagonist and roots for him/her to win.

For years she longed to go to Italy but for one reason for another, it never came together. She bypassed her own dreams to ensure everyone else achieved theirs.

3 - The Climax: This is the point of highest tension in the story after the build up. It’s when a decisive turning point happens for the protagonist. This is the part that everyone is sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for.

Debbie’s reaction to the gift was to pass out.

4 - The Resolution: This is the enjoyable part when the protagonist can celebrate the defeat of the antagonist and relish in the victory. It’s often when the antagonist feels deep satisfaction and accomplishment or internalizes profound lessons learned. This signals the end of the journey for the protagonist and the end of the story.

The following year Debbie finally made it to Italy and had her dream come true.

It's important when you tell stories to not only convey the facts but use creative language to add pop and sizzle. Elaborate when you can to draw out the story or elicit memories or emotions. And don’t discount the power of humor. Inject it into your story whenever possible.

We assembled the gift to heighten suspicion and allow for a slow reveal. We gave her a box with a bunch of individually wrapped Italian gifts to help give away the theme — a jar of Italian puttanesca sauce, a picture of the Pope, a figurine of a Roman gladiator.

Rebound Back to Your Listeners

When you’re done telling your story and it was well executed, your listeners should be raptly attentive if not fully captivated. Chances are this could spur on so many follow up questions or clarifications by your listeners but now it’s time to end your monologue and turn the tables. Invite your listeners to share their own stories that would relate to what you just shared.

Through this gesture, it’s a natural way to give them the space to share their own intimate stories. In the process they will likely disclose much more about themselves than if you simply asked a banal question like: So what do you do? After sharing personal stories and the emotions that come with them, there develops a rapport and intimacy between people without anyone even realizing it.

For those old enough to remember, think of where you were and what you were doing on 9/11. This is something that can immediately unify people and draws them closer after telling their story of what happened to them on that day. Everyone’s story is powerful because it was such an unusual emotional historic day.

Everyone Has Stories to Share

At this point you may be thinking, this sounds great but I don’t have any stories to share. Not true. You probably have plenty of life experiences that could make good stories. They just may need to be formatted a bit to make them easier to share. With a little pre-planning, anyone can turn an anecdote into a captivating story.

Here are some topics that most everyone has experience with and can turn into a captivating emotional or humorous story.

  • Memories from childhood

  • Stories from years in school

  • Starting a new job

  • Surviving terrible jobs

  • The story of finding partner/spouse

  • Stories about raising kids

  • Pet stories

  • Vacation stories

  • Stories about overcoming a personal struggle

  • Stories about meeting celebrities

  • Receiving unusual awards or achieving accomplishments

  • Having religious or spiritual experiences

To get into the rhythm of storytelling, watch for its structure in movies or TV shows. Identify the protagonist/antagonist and how the story evolves through the narrative arc. Then think about your own memories, lessons learned, amazing experiences and craft them into stories worth sharing.

See the reaction you get from people when you share your stories. See if they open up more when they’re invited to share their own stories in response. See if such interactions can one day be a story of its own.

I remember the first time I met you. You were telling the most fascinating story...

Take Action!

Think of some of the most memorable experiences of your life. Create at least three stories from them using the narrative arc structure. Practice telling the story with a close friend, family member, or colleague to get a sense of their reaction. Refine your stories or their delivery as needed. Like anything, storytelling gets better with practice.

Then as situations present themselves, you will be better prepared and equipped to rely on storytelling as part of your natural communication style.

When has storytelling convinced you of something new or moved you to action? How did you feel after hearing the story? Please share in the comments.