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How We Can Tell Better Stories

Telling a good story is more than a beginning, middle, and end. Meg Ferrill of The Moth and Nimbly breaks down the fundamentals of storytelling. 

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Thumy Phan

What’s your favorite story to tell?

The one that you bring up at the dinner table with friends. The story that always comes up at family gatherings. It’s the one you know always gets a laugh or even a few tears. It might be funny. It might be scary. But no matter what, there’s a reason it’s your best story: people want to hear it.

There’s a power in storytelling. When it’s done right, it has the ability to write and rewrite the course of our personal history and world history as well. Stories show us where we’ve been, who we are now, and — ultimately — where we want to go.

When it’s done wrong, though, it can feel like the mental equivalent of a root canal for everyone involved.

Meg Ferrill knows how to tell a good story.

For almost six years, she’s performed on many stages including with The Moth, and Amateur Night at the Apollo. She’s a five-time winner of The Moth’s StorySLAM and even holds two GrandSLAM titles. For the past two years, she’s helped others tell their own stories as an storytelling instructor for The Moth — and now she wants to help you do so too.

After all, in the world of UX design and research, good storytelling is essential. It allows us to show how our users feel and what they want to stakeholders who might not know otherwise. That’s why it’s so important that any designer or researcher knows how to craft a story.

Drawing on her experience telling stories professionally as well as her current job as Head of Project Operations at Nimbly, the global insights agency, she sat down with dscout to discuss the fundamentals of storytelling — beginning by answering a simple question: what is a story anyway?

[Storytelling] is being able to deliver whatever the intention is to the audience in a way that it’s palatable. It’s something they want. It’s something that excites them. It’s something that they walk away with and think about later in the shower or on their commute.

Meg Ferrill

dscout: You hear the phrase "You need to tell a story" when it comes to our stakeholders a lot. It helps them get them involved and invested in our research. That's why I want to start out with asking you almost a deceptively complex question: what is a story?

Meg Ferrill: There's a simple beginning, middle end you’ve heard about. But, for me, a true story is less about the elements and more about making a connection with the audience.

When I started doing stand-up comedy, everyone would say, “Don’t get up and take the mic unless you have something to say,” which is very true because what you get without that is just a bunch of nonsense and snippets of thoughts. The point of a story is you’re trying to convey something and having that register with the audience, so it needs to be bigger than snippets.

It’s being able to deliver whatever the intention is to the audience in a way that it's palatable. It's something they want. It's something that excites them. It's something that they walk away with and think about later in the shower or on their commute. It moves them, even if it's one tick in the direction you want them to go based on what you've told them.

So it starts with the audience?

I think it starts with knowing what you want to convey. What is the one thing you're conveying from this story? Is it courage? Is it love? What is it? Then the audience comes later.

I think what you're trying to do is look at them and say, "Have I given them all the tools for them to understand what I'm trying to convey and see it through my point of view?" So the audience is a very key point, yes. But I think it comes from you, and what you want to communicate.

Any story you can tell over and over and have different meanings each time, even though it's about the same subject matter or the same events. It's understanding what you want to communicate and then understanding how people receive that information so that they get your message.

Telling a good story is knowing yourself in and out, but also knowing how people view you.

Meg Ferrill

What are the key fundamentals that make up a good story?

If we're talking about a narrative story about myself, I would say making sure that I filter down into what I'm trying to convey and making sure I don't take the audience in the wrong direction.

A lot of times you'll hear people go off on tangents in stories and it ends up distracting from the goal, and mucking up the message. That weakens your story. You also need to make sure you don’t contradict yourself.

Sometimes you hear people tell a story and you're like, "This isn't their story," or maybe it just isn’t believable. For instance, I'm a mom of two, so no one's going to believe me telling a story that I went out clubbing all night because frankly, I just don't exude that energy, anymore at least.

Telling a good story is knowing yourself in and out, but also knowing how people view you.

The other thing is trying to keep your message consistent and making sure you give them all the information. A lot of times you'll hear a story and you'll be like, "How did we get here? What didn't you tell us?" In some ways, they're looking at the story with virgin eyes. You might have told it 30 times, but if you forget to tell the crucial thing that leads up to it, the audience is going to say, "Wait, what? How did we get there?"

I think after all of that, there's still the point of just not overworking it, which sounds counterintuitive. You can tell when someone's written out a story and they've memorized word for word. It loses the room. The energy and the life of the story has flatlined.

It’s hard to discern what should be kept and what can be left on the cutting room floor. How do you decide the most important parts to include in a story?

I have that problem with jokes because I often have to cut some of my favorite jokes. I just have to remind myself that I can use them later. There will be a time, but I need to table it. Because if the joke takes you away from the moment in the story or if it clearly is not building to the point you're trying to make, it ends up eroding the story.

You have to kill your darlings.

Right. That comes back to knowing the key messages you're trying to convey. If that tangent or that joke or that side story has nothing to do with it, try to cut it.

In general, people should cut their stories because it's like writing; it's all about editing. The shorter you can keep it the better. With a wedding toast, I always say, "Just do a one or two minute toast. Don't go crazy." Because unless you are a skilled speaker of 20 years, there's no reason you need to go above one or two minutes on a speech.

Why is shorter better when it comes to telling a story?

It keeps people focused. You can keep the energy up. It leaves less room for errors in the moment. Also you don't know the tolerance of the audience.

You can feel when you lose an audience and that's not a good feeling. You can always expand later and work up your minutes. But I would recommend keeping it as short as possible. Leave room for yourself, but you could probably tell a fairly good story in four to five minutes, keep the whole room and not risk losing them while also giving everybody the information and the value they want.

What's something that most designers and researchers get wrong when it comes to telling a story and trying to get their stakeholders to have a stake in the game?

Clients have objectives and sometimes those objectives don't intersect with the natural findings. It is important though to be honest to yourself or your agency. Don’t lose sight of your perspective because of pressure to conform.

In true storytelling, you want the audience to know you. That doesn't mean they have to like you. They can hate you and still love you. They can think you're OCD or you're neurotic and still love that you're that.

So I think it’s important to make sure you show who you are or your agency's uniqueness within your analysis, to separate yourselves from other people. That's why presumably the client is coming to you. That's the reason they stay. It’s the unique part of your agency that shines through in your presentation. Stay true to yourself.

The stakeholders have a lot invested in it. Maybe they've already done research. They already have a marketing campaign. They thought through all this. They think they know it. There's stress, there's deadlines. There people above them. There's always someone above you. So they feel it all.

What are some resources that you would point to people who want to learn more about the craft of storytelling and develop this muscle for themselves?

It depends on how you learn. Originally I listened to every single story on The Moth podcast when I was starting. Just listening to the rhythm while people talk, listening to how they present, listening to what they said, was very informative to me creating my own style.

Past that, you need to sort out who else is your inspiration for your stories. I think they can come from anywhere in a way.

I will also say getting yourself into a community of storytellers. That sounds like a drum circle, but that's not what I'm advocating. Getting yourself into a place where you can listen to other people learning is important. You can see their mistakes. It's almost more important to see the mistakes than it is to see the perfection. That helps you evaluate what you can do for yourself.

If you listen to only perfected models, which anything on a major podcast probably is, you're not going to experience the journey. The journey to get a perfected story is where you learn the most.

Stories are happening every day around us. They can be tiny, tiny moments that change your life, but you need to make sure you register those as well as the big moments.

What’s something you’d like to tell someone who is new to storytelling or might be nervous to do it?

When you first start storytelling, you'll be very fragile.

This is a broad assumption, there's always exceptions to the rule, but your first stories usually aren't vulnerable enough. It's a great story to tell around the dinner table with your friends. But you need to make sure you have something to say and that it's something that would radiate amongst other people.

It's about chipping away at all these barriers. It's not just one. You can be the greatest storyteller in your bedroom, but if you can't tell it to the world, then it's probably going to be hard.

That's the other thing. You don't have to get up on stage to be a storyteller. You can write. You can do a podcast. You can do whatever form of communication you think, as long as you get your story out.

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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