Meatballs and Bowties
“Collee’s Aunt Jenny was a WAAC. She had a face like a spade, but she married a good-looking man.” Grandpa began this story the same way, each of the hundred times he told it. My father would grunt, “Dad, we’ve heard this before,” and begin flipping through channels with the volume down.
Harvard Health Publications says repeating things is important for keeping our brains active. Repeating certainly kept Grandpa’s jaw active, and I soaked in every story. Making me laugh, wrinkle my brow in disbelief and roll my eyes in that “Oh, you did NOT!” way kept Grandpa entertained. Life changed, and he traded his easy chair for a wheelchair, but he reached new ears (and made new eyes roll) at Wildwood nursing home. He naturally understood a technique doctors now call Reminiscence Therapy. Alzheimer’s and dementia patients report an improvement in happiness when they tell stories about their lives.
I’ve been a writer since I was seven, but I am a lousy on-the-spot story teller. I get to the end of a 1 minute joke and realize I’ve left out some major detail and given away the punchline. If I didn’t journal, I’d never remember my own life. I live rapidly and do a lot.
I’d like to live intelligently, for a long time and enjoy it.
I bet you would, too. I bet you’d like people to “sit a spell” just because you’re interesting. If you don’t want that now, good. That means you have time to practice. I’ll join you—let’s start this week.
What does it take?
1. Verywell.com suggests we pick one story each morning. When someone calls, stops by your desk, or has an extra minute at the checkout, be ready to tell it.
2. Pick good details—instead of, “She looked pretty,” try, “She had a butterfly barrette in her hair.” Instead of, “He was so mad,” try, “He nearly brought the wall down, he slammed the door so hard.” If you don’t remember all the details, add some you think might have been there: “I think he was wearing that same bowtie the night he stole my date.” Just don’t do this in court.
3. Limit your details. Nobody wants a list of all the guests at Sunday dinner or the food that was served. They want to hear about cousin Adele throwing the meatball. Who did it hit? What happened next? You want to create a flow, from mild curiosity to expectation to releasing that breath they didn’t know they were holding. And you want to do it all in about 2 minutes.
4. Start at the right point. This will help you keep it short. Is there a back story that will explain why you felt the way you did? Choose the important part and add just enough. Does anyone need to hear what you ate for breakfast and which errands you ran before the real story begins? Leave it out.
5. Verywell.com has one more great suggestion: “Don’t think it isn’t interesting.” There is nothing more boring than a storyteller who’s worried the story will be boring. Great storytellers can turn the most ordinary moments into emotional events. Go with it—tell it with energy, as though the story is so good you can’t wait to share. Be energetic—add faces or noises, even if you feel ridiculous. People lose some of their own self-consciousness when someone else is silly.
If she were still with us, my grandma would add a sixth tip. Practice on strangers. At least until your mate has a hearing aid with volume control. She loved turning Grandpa off. Cornering people in long lines is easy, but if you’d like to practice in an encouraging environment where people give you tips for improvement, visit a local Toastmasters meeting.
On my bucket list is telling a story on The Moth Radio Hour, where ordinary people tell gripping stories, some hilarious, some heartbreaking. Give yourself a lift today and check out this week’s episode by clicking here.