Everyone has a Story: What’s the best storytelling technique?

I went to a class last night at General Assembly called ‘How to tell your startup story’. I was interested for our company ExchangeMyPhone but also as a memoirist. What is the perfect storytelling technique? Does that even exist?

storytelling here

Photo courtesy of Mike Grenville

Obviously we all have the story of our lives. We have all lived a certain number of years, we have a journey to tell people about.

The tricky part is figuring out which story, of the many stories we have, is worth telling. Specifically which parts are interesting?

According to Jerome from Narativ, the answer to which story is pretty simple. You have to find out which ones are relevant to your end goal and to your audience. And the only way to find that out is by testing them out and practicing over and over again. You have to see what different stories work well with different listeners. Some of your stories may bore people to tears, others may sit them on the edge of their seat desperate to hear what you will say next.

At the crux of the class was the idea that there is no one perfect story, that our stories should change depending on who we are telling them to. We should essentially hang our stories from our figurative belt and draw upon them as needed.

However, although we may have an arsenal of stories at our disposal, the format should remain the same for each one. Each piece should have a beginning, a turning point and an end.

Was storytelling really that simple? It had to be more complicated than that. Surely.

And it was. We got into body language and dialogue and details and relevance. But it all came back to the methodology. What happened? What was the obstacle? How did you find a solution?

It is a handy tool for anyone who has ever experienced writer’s block. Work out where you are heading, why you are telling the story and what your goal is. Then take away all the opinions and conjecture and just tell us what happened. If it is your story, no-one can argue with it. Once you have told us what happened, raise the stakes. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the tension, and the more of our attention you have. Set up key moments in the story when things shift and move us towards the ending.

With that, I’m back to writing for the afternoon but I’d love to hear your stories.

If you had to write three sentences (a beginning, a turning point and an ending) what would your story look like?

From New York City to Motor City

What would you do if you were stuck at Detroit airport with a five hour flight delay?

With a biblical storm licking across the country the planes were grounded and we weren’t going anywhere quickly so we decided to postpone the joy of airport security lines and body scanners. We grabbed a rented car and zoomed out of the parking lot to catch a glimpse of Motor City.


There was the Detroit that I had read about – the project of city planners and artists and the setting for the award-winning book Middlesex. I had heard a lot about the place. I thought I was well prepared to see the city.

I had read about the mass exodus from the city but I had also heard stories of hope, of vacant lots turned into urban farm land, of the burgeoning food scene, of the money poured into downtown.

And all of that was true but it missed the utter emptiness of Detroit, the ghostly lack of people. Coasting down the city’s potted streets, the history of the place was visceral. The city threw a party, it erected some stunning architecture and soaring skyscrapers. The population swelled and then it burst. I wasn’t prepared for the eeriness of the shell it left behind.

It is a haunting place to be and yet it is also clear that the city is fighting. It has a life and an energy that peaks up between the cracks. Eminem’s super bowl video has a lot of truth behind it and there are many people who still believe that Detroit has a future.

As we drove through Midtown we saw new galleries and crepe shops dotting the streets between boarded up shops and we swept past the gleaming, imposing façade of the art institute and the public library.

We didn’t have long, our flight was set to take off in three hours so we swung back through the ghost streets of downtown and back towards the airport through Corktown. In the towering shadow of the abandoned Michigan Central Station, Slows Bar BQ looked intriguing with its salvaged wood exterior and line of customers snaking out the door. Inside the pulsing restaurant the city’s lifeline seems stronger than ever. Hipsters squeezed in next to old-timers to scoff down the tender pulled pork and beef brisket.

Driving back to the airport all I could see was the colour of Detroit – the painted murals on the side of buildings, a concert happening by the side of the road and green grass growing between the houses. From an urban planning perspective it is fascinating. How do you resurrect a crumbling city like Detroit? It is a place where people are willing to try anything to make that happen.

But that is all still just potential. In the very brief time I spent there it was a difficult place to be. A sad place with pockets of hope.

What are you without a voice? Story of Roger Ebert

I’m here as a man who wants to communicate” – Roger Ebert, TED, March 2011

Those words were spoken by legendary film critic Roger Ebert, in a way. Maybe you saw the TED speech. Maybe you have long known about Roger Ebert’s life story. Maybe not. If you have not, see it here now. It will brighten your Monday.

TED is full of moving speeches given by shockingly eloquent speakers. This is no different. Except that Roger Ebert can no longer speak. His words were spoken by his wife Chaz, two friends John Hunter and Dr. Dean Ornish and Roger’s favourite computer voice Alex.

roger ebert

In 2006, surgeries for cancer took away Ebert’s ability to speak, and today he is forced into a virtual world where a computer does some of the living for him. Through his MacBook Pro, Ebert has found a way to continue to communicate and has escaped the silence that would have been his only option without today’s technology.

Ebert is a prolific writer. He continues to talk passionately to the world through his keyboard. On facebook, twitter and via his blog journal his voice is ‘normal’ and far more articulate than most. Idle chatter does not exist in his world, rather every word he types or speaks has meaning. He has a greater respect for language than most of the verbose world.

“What you see is not all you get”, types Ebert. He knows that most people have little patience with his speaking difficulties and that most people look away from illness. Yet he remains committed to connecting with his audience. At the end of the talk, he tells a joke through his ‘voice’ Alex. And it works, a belly laugh rolls forward from the audience. He explains how important it was for him to find a digital voice that could muster the right timing and inflection to tell a joke. He looks proud of the reaction.

Due to the missing sections of his jaw and the lack of engineering behind his face, Ebert perpetually smiles. Only his eye’s can register the emotion he feels. Watching them closely in the talk they once flashed concern for his wife but they largely remained joyful, twinkling as he acted out the words that were being read for him. He never looks like a man who feels sorry for himself. I sense that he doesn’t want our pity. Who does?

roger ebert

Ebert, before he was diagnosed with cancer, giving his trademark two thumbs up

Towards the start of his speech he says, “The act of speaking, or not speaking, is tied so indelibly to one’s identity”. Without a voice the written word has become central to Ebert’s way of living. He has a readership of thousands and thoroughly encourages online debate. His inner monologue has become public knowledge in a way that it might not have become otherwise. He has become a product of his ‘condition’ but not a victim of it.

My admiration is boundless.