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I work with a lot of story tellers, and constantly receive requests for me to help people tell their story. This begs the question: what makes for a good story? How can you, as an individual, tell your story most effectively, whether that be to a client, an audience, a constituency, or a group of friends?

Story telling is very primal to the human experience. Human beings, being social animals, want to gather around the proverbial fire and hear the story shaman spin their magic. The campfiremagic they spin are the myths that explain the values within which we live.

The modern story shaman does something similar, but uses different mediums: sometimes the written word, sometime a moving image, sometimes the spoken word. He or she wants to draw an audience into an experience, to make them forget about themselves for a moment, to transcend themselves and connect with something meaningful.

A common thread among most stories is that they involve conflict. Conflict creates tension and tension creates interest. Conflict often requires a villain. And villains need to be overcome through a process often called ‘the hero’s journey’.

What I’d like to discuss here are methods that can complement and perhaps, in some cases, even move beyond conflict as the focal story telling device. These methods include humor, insight, and empathy. I’ll finish up with a note about being cliché.

Humor is probably the best way to open people up to you as a communicator. Most every good speaker we know of has used humor effectively. You probably remember Johnny Carson of the Tonight Show. Well if you think Johnny Carson was funny you should have heard his sidekick Ed McMahon ‘warm an audience up’ prior to Johnny – all occurring before Johnny’s famous monologue. Once Johnny was on stage, then Ed took a back seat. But Ed himself was an absolutely hilarious speaker. Humor can be key to getting an audience on your side so that you can deliver your message effectively.

Insight is also key. What is insight? Insight is the ability to cut to the core of a problem or insightquestion and distill the fundamental message that invokes the proverbial ‘ah hah’ moment. We all know what those moments are. The best story tellers provide insight and give an audience something to take home. Something to learn, you might say – but that isn’t always just a practical tip or idea. It could be an insight that actually changes an audience’s perspective on things, opens their mind up to see life in a different way. Insight can be transformative.

Empathy is perhaps the most important trait of a good story teller. Empathy allows the story teller to paint a meaningful picture and connect to their audience on a personal, often emotional level.

One documentary filmmaker we worked with told the bitter story of how indigenous people in Colombia were caught between the communist rebel guerrillas and the existing government. The women of the towns began to rise up non-violently and protest the situation. One indigenous woman had trumped up charges brought against her and was taken away from her child and to prison, and all of this after the guerrillas had assassinated her husband.

Her little boy was filmed with a beautiful, missing baby teeth smile on his face because he was, at heart, a happy child with a beautiful mother. During the interview, the child broke into tears at the fact he could not see his mother while she was in prison.

The empathy and compassion the audience feels for the child is palpable, and delivers the message of the story completely and without ambiguity. Such moments of empathy, as long as they avoid the sentimental, can be powerful methods to connect with an audience and tell a story.

Today, most people are somewhat cynical about the story telling tropes rolled out via re-tread story lines. On that note I would provide one last bit of advice that was given to me by a colleague who has worked with hundreds of writers and helps them hone their pitches to agents and publishers.

Avoid the cliché like the plague. Before you’re ready to tell your story, line up your clichés in a sort of firing squad and mow them down like a gun-slinging final tête–à–tête in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Do not be empathetic with clichés. Seek and destroy with relish. Your story will be better as a result.

These few brief tips are my take on what makes a good story. On analysis, you’ll find many of these traits exist not only in good stories, but in great speakers and classic films you enjoy. In other words, they are funny in some way (at least providing comic relief), they give some insight into the state of humanity, and they are empathetic toward their subject and/or characters. While not all modern stories, speakers and films could be said to adhere to these suggestions, the ones that last, are remembered, and loved most often do.

And it seems to me that’s good company to be in.

Don Thompson is a producer and playwright.

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