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Telling meaningful stories

We all tell a lot of stories and listen to a lot of stories. It’s one of the main ways we humans communicate and make connections with one another, pulling past experiences into the present moment and creating meaning by them.

But not everyone is a good storyteller. In fact, we all regularly encounter people who either bore or bully us with their bad storytelling.

There are times when someone will tell story after meaningless story without pausing for breath in between, and I can feel the life draining from my body. And I wonder, “Can’t this person see what she’s doing to me? And how is it that she’s lived as long as she has without learning how to tell a good story?”

So, what is it that makes for a good story? And by good, I don’t mean entertaining. There are people who are excellent entertainers, who can keep us engaged with their stories.

What I getting at here is this: What makes for a meaningful story, a story that adds to the life of both the teller and the listener?

According to communication expert John Savage in his book Listening & Caring Skills, there are four levels to story telling. Here’s my own take on his thoughts.

Level 1: Information back then.

The most basic level of story-telling is a simple relating of information that happened previously. We do this numerous times every day in conversations, in emails, on social media, and in the news we consume.

“I took my family to the U2 concert in Oakland, California, in 2011” is an informational story about something that took place a few years ago. If there are details the listeners find interesting, it can even be an engaging story. But it has no real meaning. Not yet. (Note: The further in the past the story is, the less emotionally engaging it is, since there’s more distance between who you are now and who you were then. That is, unless you get to level 2 ….)

Level 2: Emotions back then.

A story gains depth when we begin to move from the purely informational to the emotional.

“As we stood and sang along with our favorite U2 songs, I felt a deep bond with my family. There I was, with my favorite people, standing ten feet away from my favorite band. It felt like heaven.”

When I engage my feelings about an event that happened in the past, I’m no longer talking in sterile information language. I’m emotionally engaged and, most likely, so too is my listener. But if the emotions stay “back then,” there is less engagement than if I express current feelings about the experience.

Level 3: Emotions now.

The best stories don’t stay in the past. They live in the present, interacting with our lives today.

“When I think about that concert, I feel nostalgic. I realize what a snapshot in time it was for our family. And now that the kids are older and heading off to college, I wonder if we’ll have many more times like that. You ever feel that way?”

Once I have a sense of how the story connects with my current feelings, I begin to understand why I told the story in the first place.

Level 4: Self-understanding.

We don’t just tell stories. When we draw memories from the past, we do so because of current realities. There’s a reason I’m telling this story and not a different one. There’s a connection between what happened before and what’s going on now. And so, when we listen to others as storytellers and to ourselves as storytellers, we can come to a moment of insight.

“Remembering that concert makes me realize how afraid I am of having my kids drift away as they grow older. It makes me determined to let them have their own lives and experiences with their own families while also making sure that we have more experiences together like that concert. If U2 is still around then, I want to take my grandkids!”

I’ve seen this kind of self-understanding happen as people tell good stories. And I’ve listened to someone tell a powerful story that could have led to such self-understanding, but she blitzed on to the next story and the one after that, while I sat there thinking, “What a profound thing she just said. I wish I could get a word in to articulate what I just heard her say.” I kick myself for not speaking up in those situations.

There’s so much more to our story-telling and story-listening than we generally experience. May we all become better tellers and better listeners, not afraid of emotion and moving toward self-understanding.

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