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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

5 Tips for Telling Stories That Are So Interesting Listeners Won't Be Tempted to Pull Out Their Phones

“I’m having the absolute worst day,” a friend of mine said as she sighed and plopped herself down in the chair across from me at a restaurant where we were meeting for after-work drinks and appetizers.

“Oh, no! What’s going on?” I asked her, giving her the prompt she needed to launch into her long-winded venting session about her no-good, terrible, absolutely horrible day.

“It all started this morning,” she began, “I slept through my alarm. I normally get up at 6:30, but today I didn’t make it out of bed until 7. No, maybe it was closer to 7:10. Actually, no, it was definitely 7:15 because I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m so late!’ So, I finally get out of bed at 7:15—actually, let’s say 7:20 just to be safe…”

I took a deep breath and braced myself for at least another five minutes of rambling through totally unnecessary details. Why? Well, to be brutally honest, because I know that my friend isn’t exactly the most engaging storyteller I’ve ever met—meaning it was going to take all of my attention and willpower to make it through her seemingly endless and impossible-to-follow tale of woe.

You’ve been there before, right? We’ve all experienced those moments when we’ve had to do our best to actively listen while someone’s droning his or her way through a story more long-winded than Moby Dick. And, what’s even worse than that? Being the person who’s rambling incessantly.

Let’s face it—we’re not all natural-born storytellers. But, that doesn’t mean we don’t run into a ton of different situations where we need to do just that. Whether you need to explain a time you overcame a challenge in a job interview or share a catchy personal anecdote at a networking event, we all run into those instances in which we need to craft a compelling narrative—preferably without our audience’s eyes glazing over.

So, how can you tell a story that’s interesting and engaging? Well, these five tips are a great place to start.

1. Hook Them From the Start

Regardless of whether you’re writing or speaking, an attention-grabbing introduction is the first key to making sure you’ve hooked your audience—and, this doesn’t mean starting with a cliché “Once up on a time,” or “Well, it was a rainy Tuesday…”

So, what sorts of tactics can you employ for your introduction? The best thing to do is to start your story with something that’ll shock or intrigue your conversational partner.

For example, perhaps an interviewer has asked you about the biggest challenge you’ve faced and the steps you took to overcome it. Rather than beginning with the expected repetition of, “The biggest challenge I’ve ever faced is…”, you could jump right into the meat and potatoes by saying something like, “At my previous job, we experienced a major malfunction and our entire office lost access to all of our files on the very same afternoon.”

Not only does this approach give you the opportunity to answer the question right away—without getting caught up in the meaningless details—but it also likely hooked your interviewer. Now, she’s left wondering how it happened, why it happened, and what exactly you did to fix it.

See how much impact a powerful introduction can have?

2. Have a Clear Arc

Have you ever listened to someone’s story only to be left thinking, “Umm, and…?” That person likely just told a narrative without a clear arc—meaning you were left with no resolution or conclusion, and instead felt as if you wasted minutes of your life listening to a completely pointless tale.

Needless to say, you don’t want to be that person who leaves people hanging. So, before launching into an anecdote that you’re so convinced is interesting, take a moment to confirm that your story has an actual beginning, middle, and—perhaps most importantly—an end.

I know, it seems painfully simple. But, it’s a crucial step that’s often missed.

3. Find Yourself Interesting

I can’t blame you if your eyes tripped over this tip and you immediately thought, “Wait, what?” But, you’d be surprised at how easy of a trap this is to fall into.

More often than not—particularly for job interviews or professional functions—we commit our stories to memory. We have canned anecdotes ready to whip out of our back pockets at a moment’s notice.

And, while this is helpful for ensuring that you’re always armed and ready with a somewhat interesting narrative, it can have dire consequences on your delivery. Instead of seeming involved and engaged in your own story, you resemble a robot just mechanically reciting your way through it.

So, as obvious as it might seem, make an effort to actually appear excited about what you’re sharing. A little animation can go a long way. And, if you don’t appear to be interested in your story, why should anyone else?

4. Use Present Tense

Here’s a little writer’s trick you can use to make your anecdotes that much more engaging: Use present tense.

No, it doesn’t matter if you’re recounting a tale of something that happened years ago. You can set the scene, and then use present language to give your story a greater sense of relevance and immediacy—which will keep your audience that much more interested.

Not convinced? Which one of these sounds more compelling: “A few years ago, I was walking on my college campus…” or “It’s my sophomore year in college, and I’m walking from my afternoon class back to my dorm room…?”

It’s a little tweak. But, it can have a pretty large impact.

5. The Shorter, the Better

This is going to sound pretty bad, but do your best to stay with me. As humans, we’re all pretty selfish and self-absorbed—meaning it can be tough for us to be interested in things that don’t directly or personally involve us.

Think about the last time you had to sit through a friend scrolling through and narrating her endless chain of vacation photos, and you’ll quickly realize that I’m right.

So, unless you’re recounting the time you tamed a wild lion or shook hands with the Dalai Lama, most people aren’t going to be as actively interested in your story as you are—which means brevity is important.

I know—you may think that all of those minor details are what really gives your narrative some extra oomph and some added context, but you’re usually better off dropping them entirely to keep your story as concise as possible.

We’re not all natural storytellers. But, that doesn’t mean we don’t frequently come across occasions when we need to share an engaging anecdote.

If you’re tired of watching people’s eyes glaze over while they mentally create their grocery lists during your spiel, these five key tips are for you. Give them a try, and you’re sure to have your audience’s full and undivided attention.

Photo of woman chatting courtesy of Portra/Getty Images.

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