”Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
This quote attributed to Albert Einstein has been one of the guiding principles of my life. Following it has improved my diet, taken the thought out of getting dressed every morning and allowed me to use a routine that works for me with consistency. In no area of my life, however, has it been as helpful as it is with storytelling.
Too many times, we give in to the temptation to make storytelling complex. We want to make sure we include every detail to make our stories as vivid as possible, but when we do, we tend to confuse our audience, bury the point of speaking, to begin with.
Or just as frequently, in an effort to make our point as obvious as possible,we overly simplify our stories and neglect some the critical details that allow out listener to relate to us.
Great storytelling, and therefore, great public speaking comes from making our stories as simple as possible but no simpler. After all, it’s the story that proves our message and if we botch the story, the chances of our audience remembering our point is pretty slim. To keep this rule in mind, I have three rather simple rules I apply to the stories I use when speaking. I have a feeling you will find them as useful as I do.
Rule 1. Simply Set The Scene
There’s a reason all fairytales begin with once upon a time and land far away and not 154 years ago in a town 34 degrees north-northwest of Baltimore…Or that horror stories begin with on a dark and stormy night…not, On a night with 95% cloud cover with a barometric pressure of 80.4 pounds of mercury….
Setting the scene is critical but adding unnecessary details cloud the story and make it harder to find the point.
One of the stories I love telling the most is about standing on a rock in our front yard when I was a little kid and pretending to be some of the history’s greatest men. When I start this story, I set the scene by saying:
When I was a boy on the farm, outside of a tiny place called Fryburg Ohio, a place so small we made Mayberry look like a Metropolis, there was a huge rock in our yard that my parents found when they dug our basement. The rock was too heavy to move so it stayed in our yard where it became the stage for my imagination.
Notice, I don’t tell you the population of my town, the weight of the rock or my age. I let the listener paint those details themselves. Doing so helps give them ownership of my story as they get to see it however they want to. Set the scene, but do it simply.
Rule 2. Use Simple Dialogue
The greatest tool there is in storytelling is dialogue. There’s simply no better way to make a story come to life than by using actual dialog rather than implied conversations. The problem with dialogue, however, is not every line in a conversation belongs in your story.
Using simple dialogue means cutting out the unnecessary. When I tell a story of fighting with my sister only to turn around and fight bullies, I use dialog to move the story, but there’s no need to tell the listener everything that’s said. When I use dialogue I share:
As we waited for the school bus, I taunted my sister: “What did you do to your hair?! Didn’t you pass a mirror this morning? You look like you lost a fight with a weed whacker.”
Oh, I know that sounds cruel, but if you had seen her ridiculous hairstyle, you would have thought the same thing. As the oldest of the Fisher siblings, tormenting my sister—and my brother–was not just my right…it was my responsibility.
The bus arrives and we step on board only to be greeted by the bus driver’s unruly sons, who were the bus bullies, laughing and pointing at my sister’s head.
My brother spoke up first. “Hey! You can’t say that about our sister.”
“Yeah,” I joined in. “Only we can say that about our sister!” And the fight was on!
When the bus stopped, we three Fisher kids found ourselves sitting in the principal’s office. “You sit here. I’m calling your parents.”
This is simple dialogue. It moves the story along with an actual conversation, but it eliminates the parts of the story that might take away from my message.
Rule 3. Simply State The Message
When it comes to delivering a message I love what Churchill said on the subject:
If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.
There is simply no better way to make a point than through a story, but we can’t depend upon our story alone to carry the message. That would be, in Mr. Churchill’s words, being subtle and clever.
A story that I love using is about working on a hog farm in high school. It has a clear lesson, but I can’t rely on the audience to simply get it from my story, I need to tell them.
But the most important lesson I learned happened when we were pumping out the pit beneath the pens. Everything had been going fine until we got to a pen and the plug was stuck.
There were three of us working that day. Colorful Chuck, myself and a tobacco chewing woman named Barb. When we couldn’t get the plug out, Chuck gave up on the chain and put his whole arm down into the liquid gold trying to pull it out. As Barb and I watched him, she was spitting Red Man juice between the slats and into the pit. She did this about four times before Chuck pulled out his arm that was now covered in hog manure to his shoulder, looked her straight in the eye and as serious as he could be said to her “would you stop spitting in there? Do you really think I want to put my hands where you’re spitting?”
The lesson I took from this is that sometimes we get so caught up in the details that we miss the bigger picture.
To make sure my message is delivered, I have to simply state the message.
These rules aren’t perfect and they don’t work in every case, but by following them, I ensure that when I tell a story, I’m giving my audience enough to follow along but no so much that I lose them in the weeds. It’s a delicate balance to strike. That’s why the rules exist in the first place. To help me make my story as simple as possible but no simpler.