Have you ever heard someone tell a story or a joke that they thought was fun and exciting… and after you didn’t react, they said, “I guess you had to be there.”
Ever told one of those?
If you have, you’re not alone. We’ve all done it on occasion. Have you ever stopped to think, “What happened? It was a great story, so why didn’t anyone else get it?”
This answer is simpler than you think. Ironically, the answer is right there in the statement itself, “I guess you had to be there.” What this means is that the storyteller didn’t take you there. There were some missing elements to the story, and as the listener, you didn’t “go there” with them.
How can you avoid this part of bad storytelling? Consider the emotions, characteristics, and flaws in your characters. Take a few minutes to identify them. I walk people through an exercise like this at the Humor Boot Camp®. This process alone will help you tell a better story.
We all have a plethora of emotions, flaws, habits and issues. What’s important is what matters for this one story and this one instance. Why? Because those emotions enhance the conflict — and the conflict is crucial to the story. It’s what creates the tension and allows that relief in the end. If there’s no tension, there’s no relief. Without it, it’s a just a “so what.”
Here’s an example… Think about a character who’s been waiting in line for a long time. That’s it. Is that interesting? Not really. It begins to get more interesting when we realize the line is long and slow-moving (the situation). Now, what if the character is impatient? Does that make it more interesting or less interesting?
Next, let’s put that character right behind someone in line who is calm, not paying attention, and allows someone else cut in front of her. What if the character waiting is named Mr. Irritable? Can you start to see the situation and possibilities come to life?
Let’s change it slightly. What if the character has a good reason to be impatient, like he’s going to miss a plane to see his first child born? As readers, we start pulling for him because we want him to make his flight.
What if the man is irritable because he’s a selfish jerk? And the patient person in front of him is a little old lady, who is also a nun? Can you see how these tiny little elements can change the experience for the reader? It changes what the reader is thinking and how they perceive the story.
I used to tell “The Lamb Story” about myself and another World Champion. If you didn’t know that the other character was extremely conservative and politically correct — and I wasn’t — there would be no story.
It’s important that we step back and look at the elements of our characters and the situation. It’s a gentle balance between too much information and not enough. We want just enough to tell the story, while including the crucial elements that pertain to this particular story and this particular situation.
Ask yourself, “What’s the reason I’m including that element or emotion of that character?” When I tell the story of Mark Brown looking at the first draft of my World Championship speech, I make sure I tell people that he has a heart of gold. My reason for doing this is to be sure the listener knows he’s not being mean. The right elements enhance the story. Too many elements confuse or bore your listener. Not including critical elements of the story may leave your listener thinking, “So what?” Upon seeing this reaction, you may say to yourself, “I guess you had to be there!”
Will you step back and take inventory of your characters and situations?
2001 World Champion of Public Speaking
P.S. Have you taken advantage of the one-time Introductory Offer of Get More Laughs by Next Week? Time’s running out… deadline is December 15th!
“Cancer: The Power of Humor”
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Great teaching on storytelling. You are so right. When a story falls flat, I know I’ve missed some important piece of information that made it clear to the listener. I’ve either made myself unclear or it’s a lousy story that I should drop.
Your spot on with the look at humor details in our stories!..Always enjoy your insights Darren,
Also thanks soooo much for reposting Fitzie…great to hear his voice again…I gave my copy of the movie to a suffering cancer patient.
Keep up the great work and enjoy the Far East!