Storytelling: the natural ability of exceptional communicators or a skill that anyone can develop?

4/27

I was delivering a storytelling performance recently and as usual, I spent a lot of time after the performance talking to members of the audience who want to chat, about the stories or themselves and so on.

The very last person to come up to me was a professor from Freiburg University in Germany, and a some point in the conversation, he made the comment that what I did was clearly a natural talent, not something that anyone could do.

I laughed and pointed out that we all tell stories, every day, and that we’re all naturally gifted in using stories to communicate, but that in order to tell stories fluently and fluidly to an audience, be it a theatre audience or a business audience, the key ingredient was practice.

He didn’t believe me, although he seemed surprised when I told him that I invested 30-40 hours of time sourcing and testing and telling stories for every 100-minute storytelling performance that I offered.  He seemed equally surprised when I explained that trying to identify the story behind a business strategy or an academic presentation or a professional talk was sometimes akin to “pulling hen’s teeth” – seemingly impossible! – and that days and weeks of talks, workshops, interviews and brainstorming sessions could go by before we uncovered the right story for the purpose.

Back at my desk and firmly in business-storytelling mode, I decided to do a bit of research to see if my theory about practice being the difference between someone who communicates using stories, and someone who uses stories to become an exceptional communicator.

Deliberate Practice

What I came across immediately was a paper published in 1993 by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer entitled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”. Ericsson et al studied a number expert performers, one being musicians, exploring whether world-class performance in a given field was the result of natural ability or whether it was something that could be developed over time through practice.

The interesting results of their research suggested that talent itself counts for very little when compared to the amount of time an individual invests in developing their talent.

Here’s an example.

One of the findings of this paper was that – on average – musicians considered “more accomplished” by their peers than musicians considered “less accomplished”. By the age of 20, the average estimated hours for the most accomplished violinists was 10,000+ hours. In comparison, the average estimated hours for the least accomplished violinists was roughly 4,600 hours.

The authors of the paper concluded that “individual differences in ultimate performance can largely be accounted for by differential amounts of past and current levels of practice.”

This research caused a flurry of interest at the time and catapulted the so-called “10,000 hour rule” into the limelight as the time to properly master a skill, a theory popularised by popular authors like Malcolm Gladwell.

Controversy

But there has also been controversy around this theory because there are many examples of people who appear to have invested the same amount of time in practising something, with one becoming much more proficient than the other.

Which makes sense: if John and Jim both invest 500 hours in developing their guitar-playing skills, for example, but John focuses on simply playing three chord songs, whereas Jim moves on to more advanced techniques and supplements his practical playing with time spent reading about guitar skills, discussing his passion in online chat rooms and hanging around live music venues to observe his heroes, it stands to reason that the quality of the learning is different and the 500 hours aren’t equal.

Fortunately, Ericsson et al covered this in their paper. In addition to discovering that musicians who invested 10,000 hours of practice were generally more accomplished than those investing 5,000 hours, they also discovered that the way people practice has an effect on accomplishment. Specifically, they discovered that “the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” In other words, simply accumulating practice hours wasn’t sufficient – the investment of time needed to be “deliberate” or mindful. Investing 10,000 hours practising poor guitar skills without challenging yourself to try different and more difficult things to improve your skills means that after 10,000 you may simply be exceptional at playing the guitar badly, with all your original bad habits firmly in place.

So now that we know all about deliberate effort or mindful practising, how can you go from using stories to communicate to becoming an exceptional communicator in the academic, non-profit or business worlds by practising storytelling?

Getting started

Here are a few ideas to start with.

1. Stretch yourself

If you simply practise the skills you know, you’ll become proficient in the basics but you won’t become better at the more challenging aspects of finding and telling stories, and of communicating with others. If you simply want to tell a handful of anecdotes well, then by all means focus exclusively on those. But if you want to inspire, inform, educate, drive action and capture hearts and minds, then you need to tackle the more than the basics.

2. Be deliberate

When you invest time practising your storytelling skills, try to hone in on the areas that need more work and work on those areas mindfully and deliberately. Be present. Give your full attention to the task at hand.

3. Invite feedback

Believe it or not, it’s almost impossible to be objective when analysing your performance. Ask others for critical input. Are your stories believable, engaging, too long or short, appropriate and effective in achieving your goal? Do you speak too softly or loudly, move around too much, make sufficient eye contact? Are you prepared? Are you natural? Take all feedback on board and start “stretching yourself (1 above) and be deliberate about it (2 above).

4. Assess yourself

Sometimes it can be difficult to believe what others say or what you feel. Video – or if that’s not possible, audio – recordings are helpful. Listen to yourself and watch yourself on screen and give yourself objective feedback and act on it.

5. Cast your net

Don’t simply look to yourself and mentors in your organisation for good examples. Cast your net far and wide and see what others are doing. Read books, watch YouTube videos, adapt skills from public speakers and politicians and actors and professional storytellers – feed yourself a regular diet of stories to help you identify the skills you want to adopt and that will act as a model for better behaviours.

6. Use your skills

In German, people use the English phrase “learning by doing” and I feel that this is apt. Often we develop the most useful skills when we try them out – in the workplace, on an audience, in a presentation or in a conversation. So use your skills in “real life” situations. You’ll get instant feedback from your audience, whether it’s an audience of one or of one hundred, and you can tweak and tune as you go. And if you don’t want to use all your skills at once, start small. That way you can use your developed skills as building blocks for developing skills.

The bottom line?

We’re all able to tell stories – we’re human after all! But to tell stories well, to use them as an effective communication tool when delivering presentations, public talks and pitches, or communicating change or simply trying to inspire a team, you need to invest time and energy in deliberately practising your skills.

Yes, it takes time. No, it’s not always easy. But being able to communicate clearly, get your message across and drive action is worth the time and energy.

References:

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R., and Tesch-Römer, C. (1993): “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance” in Psychological Review, vol. 100: 363-406. http://www.nytimes.com/images/blogs/freakonomics/pdf/DeliberatePractice(PsychologicalReview).pdf

Malcolm Gladwell (2011): “Outliers: The Story of Success Paperback”

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