Season 2

Ep 1: The Art of Effective Storytelling

With Kate Tellers

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Everybody’s got a story, but how do you best tell yours?

To delve into the depths of what makes a good story, we have storyteller extraordinaire, Kate Tellers to guide the way. She’s a host, director of MothWorks at The Moth, and co-author of the book How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Memorable Storytelling. The Moth is a non-profit storytelling extravaganza with a podcast heard by millions. With host, Staffbase’s Brian Tomlinson, Kate gets personal and down to business as she reveals the secrets behind spinning a good yarn, how to keep it fresh, and how to get “off the page” in front of an audience.

The stories we hear shape who we are, and so do the stories we tell. Listen in!


Shanice Bowrin: This story starts when I was about five years old. I used to live in an apartment complex in Montreal. We also had a park and we lived behind a mini-putt. So it was a very fun street. And one day my best friend from the other complex was going to a party in my building. Just above me was an elderly couple that had a niece and nephew and they were celebrating their birthday. So I saw people coming in with presents, I saw kids coming in with balloons, I saw cake. And I got really excited because I really wanted to go to that birthday. So I went over to my mom, tugged on her shirt, and I said, "Mom, can I please go to this party? Everyone is going." My mom said, "No, you're not invited. I don't know these people." So I sat there and I sulked and I was so sad. My mom decided to go and take a nap. And as she was sleeping, I thought, well, what if I just went to the party without her knowing?

Brian Tomlinson: You're listening to Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase. I'm your host, Brian Tomlinson, and welcome back to season two.

You heard Shanice Bowrin in the opener to this episode. She's a friend to this podcast as well as an actor, project manager and storyteller. This is going to weave a tale for us throughout the episode. And this is because all season long, we are taking a deep dive into storytelling. It's everywhere, to the point where it's almost a buzzword. But it is at the heart of so much of what we do. It can shape what we think, what we buy, how we listen, who we believe and how we behave. It's how we connect to each other, how we learn about history, culture, empathy, even love. The stories we hear shape who we are.

When I was a kid, every night that my dad would put me to bed, I'd ask for a story. Now, we lived in a pretty secluded area. The nights were pitch black and I could hear the Caribbean trade winds rustling through the coconut trees as the warm breeze flowed through the shutters. He then proceeded to tell me pieces of scary stories about ghosts and goblins. What we call jumbies or duppies in the islands. Or sometimes hilarious stories from his childhood that left my small brain wandering, is that even real? Could that be possible? Come on, man. Now, those stories have stayed with me my whole life. I can almost remember them word for word.

A quick Google search shows that the title Chief Storyteller goes back to Nike in the 1990s. But I guess a better example of that is the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient poem for Mesopotamia that dates back to around 2100 B. C. Needless to say, we're into storytelling. And increasingly it's incorporated into our work. Get this. A fact wrapped in a story is 22 times more memorable than the mere pronouncement of that fact. According to the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, our message can be 22 times more memorable if we just give it a good backstory. I'd call that a pretty good return on investment to get a sense of what a good story is, why they're important, and how we as communicators can tell them better. We brought in a true expert.

Kate Tellers: The truth is I don't really like sweets, so I don't hate any of them. I just don't gravitate towards them.

Brian Tomlinson: Now, that controversial opinion belongs to storyteller extraordinaire, Kate Tellers.

Kate Tellers: I'm a senior director and the director of Mothworks at The Moth. The Moth is a storytelling non-profit. We have been around for 26 years and I have been at The Moth for over half of that, starting when we were a staff of five.

Brian Tomlinson: If you're listening to this podcast, there's a very good chance you've also listened to The Moth podcast. It's huge, as in 100 million annual downloads huge. It features storytellers from all walks of life. I'm talking astronauts, students, a dental hygienist, a hot dog eating champion. Aside from the podcast, there are books, workshops, live storytelling events, a radio hour, a game. They have their bases covered. So Kate knows what she's doing. Let's hear her story.

Kate Tellers: I started my early career as an actor. But when I was in college, I got a degree in drama and anthropology because I was always very interested in the authentic representation of people on stage, having no idea that storytelling was or that The Moth existed when I was in college. I had no idea of any of that.

Brian Tomlinson: Kate moved to New York to be an actor. She took every job that came her way, even if it was playing the part of a reindeer in a Chinatown basement. She delved into comedy but didn't love the back and forth of she tells a joke, you laugh, repeat. She didn't find any of it particularly fulfilling.

Kate Tellers: At the same time, my mother was passing away and she ultimately did pass away. And the loss of her made me think a lot about legacy, about what we leave behind, about how I'm living my every day. And I didn't want to live my every day exactly in the way that I was doing it. So I went on a quest unbeknownst to me where I was working at temp jobs to support my acting career and I heard a story from The Moth on this American Life. This was before we had a podcast or a radio program. And I loved it. And then I went to an event. At the end, they said, "There's a live event." And I went, it was at the New Recon Poetry Cafe. On the Lower East Side.

There was a line of hundreds of people. And I went in and sat down and three stories in, I was completely hooked because it was that thing that I'd been looking for, the connection between the person on stage and the person in the audience and that interchange and give and take. And in all of the shows I'd been to or been in either on stage or in the audience, I'd never found something that felt so connected in the room. So I knocked on the door, and my first job was as the podcast intern. I edited the first few episodes of the podcast in the free software GarageBand. And we went to number one on iTunes.

Brian Tomlinson: ITunes, GarageBand. Those take me back. Kate was hooked, and storytelling has given her a long and fulfilling career. But what is it about sharing that makes it so appealing? Getting up in front of strangers to say personal things about ourselves is not what most people consider a good time, and Kate gets that. But it's important to push through the discomfort.

Kate Tellers: I'll start with myself personally. The story about my mom. That was the most life-changing, devastating experience of my life. And I think sometimes we just want to tell a story to make a record of it. It elevates its importance if it can be heard and shared and remembered. And I think when I go back to the night that my mother passed away, the big moment for me was afterwards when my whole family was there and we were just telling stories about her, and I was like, this is all that we have now. And I think for a lot of us, it's just that idea of creating a record and connecting with people through that record.

And at The Moth we talk about the diversity and the commonality of the human experience. And I think while many people haven't been through many of the experiences that they hear at The Moth, there's a core of humanity and relatable experience or relatable emotion. And it feels really good to say to someone, "This happened to me." And to be able to hear them say, "I felt that way too." Or on the opposite end, I've never thought about things in this way and your experience has introduced me to a life or a person that I never would've met before.

Brian Tomlinson: And for Kate, it was a way of keeping her mother with her.

Kate Tellers: So when we were sitting in my mother's apartment after my mother had passed away, the one thing that my aunt told me when we were sharing stories, she said, "I remember", she said, "Your mother loved you so much." And she said, "I remember when you and your sister were kids, we would all be gathered together and all the adults would be talking and she would be rolling on the floor with you kids. She wanted to be with you." And of course, that means a lot to when you've just lost your mother to know how much you were loved. And I remember thinking about that. And then ultimately when I did go on to have children, allowing that to inform the way that I parented because she couldn't be there to help me. I want to be the parent that rolls on the floor and that creates these memories for my children and is able to express love in that big, maybe unconventional way.

On the larger stage, The Moth has introduced me to people who I never would've met before and experiences that I never would've understood. And it's one thing to read about the civil rights movement in a history book. It's another to hear a story from someone who lived and marched through it. It's one thing to understand that we live in a world with people who have very different upbringings and challenges. It's another to hear that from their own point of view and to challenge the dominant narratives that we've all been fed and to do that in a really personal and human way.

Brian Tomlinson: One story profoundly affected the way Kate raised her daughter. That's a powerful thing. Let's check back in with Shanice.

Shanice Bowrin: So as my mom slept on the couch, I hatched a plan. I went to the front door and I carefully opened it and snuck on through. I raced up the stairs and knocked on the birthday party door. And they said, "Come on in." And I was so excited. There was the beautiful cake. There was a pinata that I didn't know was there. And the presents, everybody was having so much fun. And I thought, yes, I'm finally in the party! Meanwhile, as I'm enjoying myself upstairs, my mom wakes up from her nap and notices the apartment is awfully quiet. "Shanice?" No answer. She goes over to my bedroom, "Shanice!" There's no one there. She runs outside and calls my name. "Shanice!" She walks down the street to the park. "Shanice!" As she looks frantically, she sees a police officer and she runs over. "Hi, I'm so sorry. I don't mean to bother you, but please help me find my missing kid. It's been an hour. I can't find her." And this started the mad dash to find five-year-old me.

Brian Tomlinson: Ooh, Shanice, you may be in some trouble now.

Have you ever played arms reach show and tell? It's a team building game that you play over Zoom. The idea is that you have to grab something within reach of where you're sitting and present it to your group. People can grab the most mundane trinket yet tell the most fascinating story about it. Kind of like my favorite coffee mug here that I literally drove to Denmark to get. They say every person has a story but arms reach show and tell demonstrates that nearly every object has a story. That we have books, movies, brands, and of course podcasts. Stories are everywhere around us but some are better than others. And telling them is a skill, a skill that can be learned and developed. So what makes a good story?

Kate Tellers: Well, I think fundamentally a great story is a story that a storyteller cares about. It's an experience that you care about. My first Mainstage story was about this huge life-changing experience but it doesn't have to be that. There's amazing stories about making a cup of coffee, sharing a KitKat bar, things like that, that if you care, the audience cares. And then the experience has to be something that's changed you in some way. And the change is, there's internal and external change, but really a perspective shift. And it doesn't have to be from black to white. It can be, I thought I cared about this and this experience made me realize that this thing, this relationship, is the most important thing in my life. But there has to be some sort of shift. And so once you've gotten a beat on that, then what I always like to do is start to look for scenes. What are the scenes that would have to be included to share this experience? And then how do we stitch them together?

Brian Tomlinson: The Moth storytelling sessions are held in front of an audience. So not only does the presenter have to master their story, they need to take it to the stage without notes.

Kate Tellers: We meet people where they are. But before they take the Mainstage, we work with them in a series of sessions back and forth. Sometimes it'll be a couple of weeks, sometimes a couple of months, couple of years on and off. We call it we're cooking a story with someone. For some people, it's about feeling like they have a story. For some people, it's really making them comfortable with the fact that they may have never been on a stage and are now going to be sharing a piece of their life for 2, 700 people. For some people that are writers, it's trying to get them off of the page. It's all sorts of stuff. Right before they go on, a great thing to remember right before a storyteller takes the stage is that this is your life. And so there's no way that you can get it wrong. And the audience wants to know who you are and is with you.

So we've had storytellers who have blanked or who've tripped on a word, who've been overwhelmed with emotion, and the audience is just there at the edge of their seats waiting. Sometimes they'll clap, sometimes they'll cheer to get someone back. So there's no way to screw it up as long as you know what happened next.

Brian Tomlinson: And who knows your story better than you. So we've established that there are a lot of stories out there. How does Kate decide which ones make it to the stage?

Kate Tellers: Yeah. So we find our storytellers in a number of ways. We have a pitch line that anyone can call and do a pitch of their story. We have an open mic storytelling series so this is where people come and throw their name in the hat and share a story. For example, I'm directing our first show in Wilmington, Delaware. So I just have people on the ground being like, "Who are the interesting people in Wilmington? Do they have a story to tell?" Et cetera. But what ultimately elevates the story to the stage is the things that I talked about before. The storyteller needs to care deeply about their story.

There needs to be a moment of change, but we're also always looking for voices that we haven't and narratives that we haven't heard before. So what that means sometimes is someone might come to us with a really compelling story but we've recently had a couple of those. And so we have to say, "Not now". Even though you probably would hear it and hear about it wonderfully but we're looking for an element of freshness. So when we cast a show, we may say, "Well, we already really have one lighthearted story about this sort of thing. So we want a gut punch to complement that." And there's all of that that goes into putting a show together. So having a "great story" is the beginning but then there's all of these other little things that need to match up. Which is why sometimes we'll talk to someone and we won't cast them for another year or two years or something because we have to find the right spot.

Brian Tomlinson: So we all have these stories. Which one do we tell? Do you want to hear about the night I got on the wrong bus and went joyriding to all sorts of crazy places, only to get home at three A. M. To find my mom sitting in the dark of our kitchen.

Angry Mom: You're in so much trouble, young man.

Brian Tomlinson: Or maybe the night I got lost in a nightclub my first weekend in a new country. Do we even know which of our stories is the best? Kate says the cream eventually rises to the top but it can take some prodding.

Kate Tellers: When I hang up the phone with them, what's a detail that... This one really stuck with me. And then you follow that line of questions. And it's happened to me on both sides, both as a storyteller, as a director, where someone will say, "I want to tell the story about X".

And then we'll start talking and I'll start asking questions. And that really sounds like a lot of what you were talking about with this other part of your life. And they'll say, "Oh, I didn't realize there was a connection here." Again, it's like the pursuit of that higher truth is a dialogue with the teller. And I think it's very hard as a storyteller alone to do that simply by yourself. There is the act of sharing and being heard and having someone reflect back to you. Everyone always says, "This feels like therapy." And to some degree, there's a great overlap. It's like someone's reflecting back what they hear and challenging you to think deeply about pieces that you might not have thought were important. And it's through that that we get to something that is compelling and perhaps stage worthy.

Brian Tomlinson: When it comes to storytelling, there are tons of techniques that we should use/ but let's switch gears a bit. What are the things that you should definitely not do?

Kate Tellers: Yes, there are a million no-nos.

But I think things to keep in mind, oral storytelling in particular, and that goes into presentations and things like that, are you can't rewind, you can't go back. So telling your story in a way that you think is going to have like zazz may actually confuse the audience. So people doing time jumps or adding too many characters, it's just such a simple and actually really efficient tool for communication. So thinking about how can I most clearly communicate this story to my audience? The don't would be, don't add things up for show. The other thing is I feel particularly in business, there's this compulsion to say, here's a story about me being great. So I'll start off by telling you that I'm great and then here's this great thing that I did. In sum, I'm great. And that just turns off the audience. Vulnerability is so key here. And it's such a missed opportunity if you're looking to take your audience on a journey to start in a place where you're already separate from them, instead of acknowledging, here's where we all are, here's where we all are as fallible people. And this is the story of when I started to understand or believe this idea and we can all go on that journey together.

And then finally, I would say get off of the page as quickly as possible. Some of our storytellers don't even fully script their stories. We work from an outline in the beginning. There's pluses and minuses to working from a script or working from an outline, of course, but don't marry yourself to your words. Allow yourself to be present in telling the story. And if there's a moment of high emotion, give yourself space for that. If you get a big laugh, give yourself space for that. Know that you might have to jump back to add a detail that you forgot before, and there's no real problem. That's not like an X if you do that, that's sharing a story in a way that you would share a story with a friend at dinner.

Brian Tomlinson: But maybe we aren't all The Moth material, and that's okay. We don't need to get on stage in front of hundreds of people to be a good storyteller. We still use it in our everyday lives and our work. How do we do it?

Kate Tellers: It is remarkable how applicable storytelling is to any way that people try to work and communicate both with each other and with whomever their audience might be. In the workshops, I'd say some of the things that I find most powerful is how quickly storytelling can shift a culture, but even just the energy of a room. People at work are usually not given the space to reflect on what they bring to an experience or what they bring to their own work. And when asked questions about that and when being able to hear your colleagues say, "This is why I do this work" or "This is why I am who I am. This is why I make decisions in the way that I do", you'll just sense this sense of community that wasn't there before. And we very often hear, "I've worked with you for three years, I never knew this about you. I understand you in a different way." And they have an investment in each other and in their work that wasn't there 120 minutes before because they've allowed themselves that space for that vulnerability and altered communication.

In terms of the way we use storytelling in business, the way we teach it at The Moth, is we look at it as a way to build connection in teams, to build culture and to elevate communication. And those are the three most important things. So we talk about communicating and making that human connection that I've been talking about both from a cultural and a team building perspective, but also how do you take the data and the more boring things that you typically need to communicate in business and find a story that connects to that or that can weave through that and look for what the story is of the technical pieces that you're attempting to communicate.

Brian Tomlinson: Storytelling is a bit like a magic wand for life. We wave it and it helps us express ourselves, inspires us to elevate our work. Better connect with the people we care about and help us fine tune our internal compass. But as good old Uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility.

Kate Tellers: I think we can craft a story to manipulate or we can tell a compelling story to connect. And I obviously fall on the latter. So to me, the cornerstone of that is, well, what is true and what truth are we clearly communicating to the audiences that we wish to communicate with? And technically, storytelling is the intentional ordering of information. So of course, we can craft a narrative that communicates something untrue or manipulative. I don't believe that's the better story. I feel like people can sense what is untrue or when they're being manipulated. But I also don't believe in using story for that. There's the artistic and then there's the ethical element and both of those things I think really come to play. So I think storytelling is a really, really valuable tool in business, for sure. But I'm always going to fall on what is true and how do we tell that truth in a compelling way. I find the beauty of storytelling is that it is such an accessible art form and you excel at it when you are yourself.

Brian Tomlinson: When it's all said and done, storytelling is just the intentional ordering of information, kind of like arranging puzzle pieces in just the right way. But that's a simple explanation of what can be a complicated craft. In truth, it can be a bit tricky. It comes so naturally to some of us, yet for others it takes a lot more effort. But the things to keep in mind are authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty. Storytelling is at its best when it's used to bring us together, when we approach it from a place of connection.

But wait before we go. What about little Shanice? The last time we heard from her, she was having a blast at her upstairs neighbor's party while her mother frantically searched for her with the police. Let's hear how that went.

Shanice Bowrin: Okay, so back at the party I was having the time of my life. We were opening up the pinata and we're just finishing eating all the candy. The music was so loud and it's finally time for my favorite part, the cake. The adults start lighting the candles and the kids start to gather around when I realize, oh, I kind of have to go to the bathroom. So I go in and I do my business. But in the bathroom, I hear here stomping up the stairs and bang, bang, bang. I could hear the party stop. Everyone is silent and I start to get a little bit worried.

Police Officer: Hi, sorry to bother you guys but we're looking for a Shanice Bowrin.

Shanice Bowrin: I opened the bathroom door and looked to see a party of people staring at me coming out the bathroom with a very large police officer just behind them. "Hi, I'm Shanice."

Police Officer: Well, your mother's been looking for you. Can you come with us?

Shanice Bowrin: And that's when my heart started to sink. I knew then, I'm in trouble. And so I followed these police officers down the stairs to my mom as angry as I've ever seen her.

"Thank you so much for returning her.” And she closes the door. "Shanice. I can't believe you did that. I've been looking everywhere for you. Do you know you could get kidnapped?”

After the screaming ended, she gave me my punishment. I was to be grounded for the entire summer. So instead of watching TV and playing with my friends, I was forced to do times tables. But when I went back to school, I was so good at math that I actually got the math award for finishing the workbook before all the other students. So maybe there was a silver lining after all.

Brian Tomlinson: Thanks to our guests, the director of The Moth, Kate Tellers, and of course, Shanice Bowrin. Check out The Moth books and podcasts. We'll put a link in our show notes.

I'm Brian Tomlinson, and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase with production support from Jar Audio. Join us next time as we take a look at the hero's journey. When we tell our stories, who gets to be the hero and how do we sometimes get it wrong?

Joel Christensen: They ruin the lives of everyone around them and they end up alone and dying. The challenging of death doesn't result in anything but death.

Brian Tomlinson: Whoa, that's dark. If you enjoyed the show, pretty, pretty, please tell your friends, your family, your parents, even your pets, and then you can go and follow us on your favorite podcast app and be sure to leave a review. We'd love to know what you think. Until next time.

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