The first and most important lesson any aspiring storyteller must learn is not inherently obvious. But understanding the difference between a great story and a great anecdote is essential.
That difference is not just pedantic, either – whether or not you understand the nuance, your audience will. If you’ve ever tried telling someone about a memorable part of your day and were meet with a “meh”, it’s perhaps because you conveyed a simple anecdote of an experience instead of a real story.
Lesson 1: A story conveys emotion.
Though “a goat riding on the roof of a car” is interesting, by itself it’s just an observation. Sometimes storytellers make the mistake of trying to just pile on more information to pad out a simple observation or detail they think makes a good story. For instance, “a goat riding on the roof of a car was bleating like an adolescent on the Matterhorn ride at Disney” is still just an observation.
When talking about your Peace Corps experience, listeners will empathize with you if they can put themselves in the emotional state you were in at the time. Emotion conveys importance, and the audience only wants to hear about the stuff that matters.
The trick is to slowly build to the emotional place where you experienced the climax. If you signal your emotions along the way, the listener will be with you when you get to the climax of the story.
“I was very nervous that the goat was going to fall off the roof of the car” is still not quite right. Think before that moment of terror. What were you doing before you got in the car? What was the goat doing? Where were you heading and why? Wasn’t it odd that the trunk was entirely packed with goat food (goats eat anything, so this one might be moot)?
Returned volunteer Jackie Gannon’s (Namibia, 2011-2013) story from Peace Corps Stories: The Unofficial Podcast showcases this perfectly. In the story, Jackie tells of her “village crazy”. He was a man that would shout at her randomly and get kicked out of every single village meeting. At first, Jackie was unsettled by his presence. Peace Corps staff even advised her to keep her distance from him. But over time, she learned to understand him. He was crazy, but he wasn’t a threat. He cared for the village with all his heart.
At the climax of the story, Jackie shares the key moment that made her realize how important he was to village life (we won’t give the ending away in case you haven’t heard the episode yet). But along the way, the listener goes through a series of expectations about the man that sway their emotions.
That’s what a good story does: It doesn’t need to have a big twist ending or some sort of wow factor (though of course those help add color), but it does need to make the listener invest emotionally and understand the impact it had on the storyteller.
By telling it in this way, Jackie made it a story about the man’s life beyond the superficial way most of her neighbors viewed him, and conveyed the inspiring way that the Peace Corps shows us how we can learn to appreciate something utterly foreign to us. It’s the kind of story many RPCVs want to pass along to our friends back in the states, but sometimes fail at communicating the significance we felt.
Here are some quick questions to ask yourself when trying to turn a wild anecdote into a compelling story so that you can prepare to throw your name in the hat at the 7th annual Peace Corps Story Slam on June 9:
– Why do you care so much about this story in the first place?
– If someone else were telling this story, would you care about it as much? If not, why? If yes, what about this story from a stranger would you resonate with?
– What information can you put into the time gaps in your story?
– If the climax of the story was only the words of how you felt, what emotions and emotional triggers along the way would it take to get you there without the climax?
For more storytelling tips, check out our self-directed Storytelling 101 workshop!