“Telling stories is not about one-upping. It is about swapping stories. To win the game you tell the right stories to get the better stories out of the other person.” ---my friend Bobby Lane
I have spent the last 2 months teaching freshman English composition classes online because of the coronavirus. The transition from teaching face to face to online was a smooth one because I've taught online classes (at least one per semester) for 7 years now. From a practical perspective, it worked. But like all online classes, it is significantly less personal. Teaching online can make it easy to see students as faceless Gen Z kids who are attempting to multitask by watching Netflix and writing their essays for my class. This is a caricature of my online students that pops into my mind. While the caricature is unintentional, teaching online can make my students become a disembodied roster of names that I interact with through email rather than actual people.
During the coronavirus, I did my best to encourage students to chat with me on the phone and/or contact me through email so that their experience (and mine) seemed more human. Yet this totally changed the last week of classes. The last essay of the semester was to write a 4 page essay that focused on a 24 hour period in their life. They had to tell a story about one day in their life. I was blown away at the depth of the stories my students wrote. Here are short summaries of some of the stories my students wrote:
• The dinner conversation when a student’s parents told her they were getting divorced.
• The track meet when a student placed third in the North Carolina high school state track championship.
• The experience of a 20 year old woman who works as a CNA at a nursing home where the same 90-year-old man awkwardly tells her that he is in love with her every week.
• A story about a student who after a night of partying with her friends in high school finds a dead body on the side of the road.
After grading these assignments, my students were no longer "depersonalized online students" but complex people who I wanted personally to know face to face. Why? Because hearing original stories makes seemingly “normal” people much more compelling and unique. It becomes incredibly hard to overlook strangers when you actually hear their stories. And for me, my online students were longer strangers whenever I read their personal narratives.
The Problem: We (Falsely) Believe the Everyday American Experience Is Not Worth Hearing About
But here’s the problem with life outside of the English composition classroom-----many people are hesitant to share their stories. Students who take my English class expect me to ask them to write about some memory of their past. I have that advantage as an English teacher to say "Tell me a story and do not be shy about it." This means I have to build my students' confidence that their story is worth telling even when they think it is mundane or too "normal."
I find that some adults (accomplished, competent people) are sometimes hesitant to tell stories at dinner parties. This is puzzling to me. Do they need encouragement, like my students, that their normal everyday existence is worth sharing?
What if you (adult who is reading this blog entry who is somewhat shy or self identify as "introverted") decided to take a risk and tell a story? I want to address 4 excuses I often hear for people who "opt-out" of telling a story. In some situations, these excuses might be a legitimate reason to not share. Yet at the same time, other excuses are lame and we need to push through the fears and speak up.
Four Excuses I've Heard for Not Sharing a Story
Excuse #1: “I’m just not a good storyteller. Some people are, but I wasn’t born with that natural talent.”
Some people have a gift of telling an incredibly funny story. They seem to be naturally funny as if it were genetic.
Yet the mindset of Excuse #1 is a problem because we fail to realize is that many people who are “naturally good storytellers” often mimic their style after a family member. So it is not as much genetic but a learned skill. Storytelling is a skill that can be learned through practice, observation and study. I used to be hesitant to tell my stories until I read some of Mark Twain’s thoughts on storytelling. Twain says that if you are going to tell a story, try to keep a straight face:
“The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.”
Up until I read Twain’s thoughts on storytelling in college, I could never contain myself from laughing if I ever tried to tell a funny story. Today, I always try to keep a straight face. If people laugh, good. If they don’t, then that’s fine too. In fact, that's probably the best advice I'ver ever received about this topic: act like you don't think your own story is funny. Just tell it.
Everyone has good stories to share. Everyone is at a different level of how to craft their own experience into something that the audience connects with. We’ve got to see it as a skill to be practiced and learned so those who are less confident will not hesitate to speak up.
Excuse #2: “I always think of a story to share, but it doesn’t really relate to the topic of conversation.”
I was on a Zoom call recently where a group of friends were all answering the question “Tell a story about something awkward that happened to you in high school.”
My friend Naomi said, “Well, I have a story, but I don’t think it really relates.”
She hesitated. But then went ahead and told this story:
“Well, I worked at McDonald’s in high school. I worked in the back cooking burgers and running the drive-thru. It was more fun to work making the food rather than running the cash register. Then one day I came into work and my boss told me that I was a regional McDonald’s ambassador. I thought it was like “Employee of the Month,” but it was way more than that. They got this terrible picture of me and put it on this huge sign outside the restaurant with my face on it. So everyone in town could see my face in front of McDonald’s. But they didn’t even get a good picture of my face; I had hat hair. Even more, my face was on every single McDonald's tray liner in the state of North Carolina.”
How does one become one of the top McDonald's employees in the state? I had so many questions. How had I known Naomi for 4 years and never heard any McDonald's stories? Naomi’s story sparked another story on our Zoom call where our friend Catie talked about being a janitor at a large church while she was in high school. The Zoom call suddenly had a whole new energy and shifted to “most interesting job I’ve ever had.”
Even if you feel like your story is off-topic, don’t be afraid to go off-topic. Sometimes a topic of conversation runs its course and the conversation needs to shift. Even more, sometimes the mood of the conversation needs to shift. We cannot tell funny stories all the time, that is unrealistic. A good conversation also leaves space for stories of frustration, absurdity, fear, disappointment, loss and awkwardness. We shouldn’t hesitate to change topics or change moods.
For myself, I typically just tell stories about awkwardness. I say “Man, something happened to me today, it was kind of weird.” I have found ways to deliver these types of stories partially because I do not consider myself a witty or funny storyteller, so I just talk about awkward stories.
Excuse #3: “Well, I like to ask people questions rather than try to hog the stage by talking too much.”
Some people hesitate to tell stories because they fear they will come off as being self-absorbed. This is a legitimate fear. Nobody wants to be around someone who rambles about their life for 5 whole minutes not allowing anyone to talk. Is it possible to be an obnoxious storyteller? Yes, it is. However, we also need to trust ourselves to that we know that line between being an obnoxious person and being just someone who is sharing a story about a job they had in high school.
If we only rely on the “ask lots of good questions” method to get to know people, then it can also be a way of being guarded in conversation and feel like an interview. I remember a conversation my friend Bobby Lane challenged my perception of this back in 2005. He said, “One of the ways I get to know people is I tell them a story first about myself, and then they might be more willing to open up themselves.”
Up until that point in my life, I had always assumed the primary way to get to know someone was primarily a matter of asking the right questions and listening. In a way, I had thought for years that upon meeting someone new that telling a story could be somewhat rude. Ever since then, I ask questions, but I spend an equal amount of time talking about myself. I believe it is a balance.
How do you overcome Excuse #3? Take more risks of launching into a story. In order to tell a story, you need at least 1-2 minutes in order to set the context. Telling a story takes time and it is a risk. But you have to put yourself out there. Even if you do “hog the stage” for a few minutes, it is OK to embarrass yourself doing talking, than to have everyone around you not know anything about you. I find that good conversation is a balance of both icebreaker questions and good stories. If you only ask questions, then you may seem guarded. But if you only tell stories, then you may seem self-absorbed.
Excuse #4: “I will probably bore people. They don’t have time to hear my story.”
This is an excuse that a product of our culture. From what I have found, most people are not boring. Yet we live in a culture that Yet this is a legitimate excuse because we live in a culture that does not encourage the habit of listening to others.
In Sherry Turkle’s book “Reclaiming Conversation:The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” she writes about how Smartphones make us prone to multi-tasking in face to face conversation, therefore making us less empathetic towards people around us. Turkle is a computer science professor at MIT and is deeply skeptical of what technology is doing to relationships. The multi-tasking we have developed from Smartphones, as a result, means people are less likely to listen to our stories. Why? Because my stories and your stories are having to compete with professional Youtubers, Instagram influencers and multiple other online entertainers who want our attention desperately. Their job depends on it. The ordinary nature of the stories we tell will seem boring in comparison to anything on social media or Netflix.
One of Sherry Turkle solutions in her book is to remember that it typically takes seven minutes to see if a conversation is meaningful:
“Obey the seven-minute rule. This is the rule, suggested by a college junior, that grows out of the observation that it takes at least seven minutes to see how a conversation is going to unfold. The rule is that you have to let it unfold and not go to your phone before those seven minutes pass. If there is a lull in the conversation, let it be. . . Conversation, like life, has silences and boring bits. This bear repeating: It is often in the moment when we stumble and hesitate and fall silent that we reveal ourselves to each other. Digital communication can lead us to an edited life. We should not forget that an unedited life is also worth living.”
So are you boring? Probably not. We just need to find ways to create social environments that create space for stories. We need to remember that we are up against serious competition for attention in the 21st century. Yet we all have the advantage of being flawed human beings who could gain a small audience for being authentic and transparent.
Don't hesitate to tell stories. Tell stories to your friends and your children. Tell stories to your co-workers and strangers. Instead of initially asking the question "how are you doing?" just launch into something that happened to you yesterday or 10 years ago and see what happens.