For more than 25 years, I’ve enjoyed telling stories, but all my life I’ve enjoyed hearing them, from many people all over the world. Stories give us the glorious opportunity to connect with people of different cultures and backgrounds, and also to expose them them to both the differences and the similarities of our life experience. Well-told stories can make these experiences real to US, even though we were never there. As story tellers, we can make our stories, characters and scenes come ALIVE using the simplest tool we have; our words. Done well, we won’t just TELL our audiences about our experiences, but we can TAKE them to those experiences.
Even though I didn’t understand it at the time, I experienced the “Don’t tell us…TAKE us” technique first hand when I was a child, growing up in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1960s and 1970s. At various times during my childhood, we experienced scheduled electrical outages. Electrical power was cut off by the authorities at specific times for conservation purposes. During such times we all made the necessary adjustments. If I didn’t complete my homework before the ‘power cut’, I had to finish up by the light of a lantern, fueled with kerosene oil.
If homework was all done, sometimes the adults in our family and neighborhood would end up telling us stories, many based on African folklore, like the crafty spider Anansi, or ‘Big Boy’. These stories weren’t read to us like fairy tales from a book. They were a part of the oral tradition originating in Africa. Our neighbor, Mr. Scott would tell us the story of Anansi and Bird Cherry Island…among others…and even though we heard these stories several times, we ALWAYS looked forward to hearing them again. One of the reasons is the point of my message today. Like all the other storytellers from my youth, Mr. Scott didn’t simply TELL the stories; he TRANSPORTED us to another time, and another place; he TOOK us to Bird Cherry Island! We experienced the story. We were THERE! That’s what I’d like you to think about as you tell YOUR story. I have no doubt that your audience can hear your story, but can they SEE it? Can they EXPERIENCE it? DO you TELL them, or do you TAKE them?
To help you truly give your audience an experience, I have a recommendation. Choose words that are effective DESCRIPTORS. If you’re talking about a an important person, animal, object or location, describe it clearly so the audience can create vivid picture in their own mind…so they can SEE it. For example, you can tell the audience that you don’t enjoy talking with your neighbor, and that’s fine. However, a few additional descriptors will help them to visualize him. “My neighbor is a grumpy old fellow, whose face is always wrinkled in a scowl. It’s like he drank vinegar, and lime juice…and the taste has been in his mouth for the past 60 years!” The word ‘GRUMPY’ gives his demeanor, and the additional detail helps the audience to ‘see’ his face in their minds. Similarly, ‘the aroma of freshly-brewed hazelnut coffee filled the air’ allows the audience to ‘experience’ the smell of the location. This is a simple technique, but it can transform your speech into an experience.
It’s been a long time since I sat listening to stories by lamp light in Kingston, Jamaica, but I STILL remember how Mr. Scott and others made these stories come alive for my friends, my siblings, and me. Your words have the power to transport and transform us. Choose them well, and USE them well!
When you tell your story, don’t just tell us; TAKE us!