#29 What Makes a Great Storyteller
10 Qualities that help make your stories great
Storytelling is fulfilling and important and hard as hell to do.
As I’m sure you can imagine, I think about storytelling a lot. Specifically, through the lens of how to be a better storyteller myself and how to take what I learn along the way and share it with you, dear reader.
After being sent a list of the ten things that make a good writer last week, I couldn’t help but have some notes (I was born critical and will likely die that way too). It also got me to thinking, beyond the written medium, what are the qualities that make a good storyteller? I put together a list based on my own experience and what I have found to help me across my chosen mediums.
This is by no means a final list. In fact I’d encourage you to think of what you’d add based on your own experiences as a storyteller (please share in the comments below—we’re here to learn from each other).
So, from me to you, the qualities I’ve found essential in helping me tell better stories.
Openness: Being open to new ideas, thoughts, and experiences. Some of my best stories have come from the ability to be receptive to the (often differing) opinions and lived experiences of others. Without judgement.
Curiosity: I talk about this one all the time. Just a genuine interest in all that life and the world has the offer and a willingness to explore the good, bad, and not so pretty of it.
Creativity: This one is a bit amorphous because I think scientists can be as creative as visual artists, it’s just applied in different ways. Really it’s about a commitment to using your imagination to bring new iterations of thoughts and ideas into the world. Few things are net new but the combination of your experience and older ideas is what makes them new again and interesting.
Belief in Magic: This is tied to the last one. There is an element of magic to storytelling in the way we come up with ideas and in the energy they leave behind in the minds of our audiences. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a whole book about it in Big Magic. Worth a read if you’re interested in the notion of creativity and creation.
Editors: No story is complete without the input and feedback of another human. Sometimes they add or remove things, sometimes they just show up to confirm it’s perfection (this last one has never happened to me, but I’m sure it’s possible for the most brilliant among us). Whether it’s a professional editor or just someone to provide feedback, we need that sober second thought applied to our stories in order for them to be their very best.
Deep understanding of your form: You cannot tell a great story, no matter what medium you work in, if you don’t have a true understanding of the form. Great writers read and understand language. Sculptures often have encyclopedic knowledge of their materials. This is in order to be able to manipulate and bring it to life in new ways. The most interesting stories come from folks who have delved deep into the crevices of their medium at some point and come back with new ways of working with it.
Respect for your audience: This is a complex one. Often, we are creating for an audience. I don’t believe in bringing them into the creation part of the process, but when it comes time to share it with them we have to take their experience and knowledge into account. That may sometimes mean editing the work or (more likely) framing it in a way that helps make it meaningful for them. I assume all of you are smart, creative storytellers and I write to you with that foundation in mind. Assume the best of your audience and then share with them something that adds to their experience of the world and does not talk down to them.
An ability to make connections: Any strategist will tell you that one of their superpowers is taking seemingly disparate notions and finding the thing that connects them. I think any good storyteller has that innate ability as well or has honed it over time. It’s seeing blue and red and being able to imagine purple in all is glory. Or magenta when you pull in even more elements.
Bravery: Daring to do something different and great is what storytelling is all about. It isn’t easy. In fact it demands a level of vulnerability and willingness to bare yourself or your dreams or you heart in some way to an audience that may or not be receptive. It’s hard and as storytellers I admire you all for taking the leap. Brené Brown writes a lot about bravery and vulnerability. I’d recommend Daring Greatly to address this idea specifically, but honestly all of her books are brilliant.
Humility: This one I think comes naturally to storytellers and is more often a version of self-deprecation or self-doubt. Making a thing and sharing it with the world is one of the hardest and bravest things we do as humans. I want you to work on building self-doubt up to humility. Understanding what you’ve created is brilliant, recognizing it for that, but going to the world to share it with a level of pride and not arrogance is important. Kendrick Lamar said it best (with far more swears): sit down, be humble. You are great at what you do and a gift to the world, never forget that. No need to be arrogant about it though. Just enjoy the feeling.
A Story Well Told
This is a controversial one and widely debated on twitter. Please tell me if you think I’m wrong, but I watched Malcolm & Marie, a film written and directed by Sam Levinson starring John David Washington and Zendaya. I found myself completely enthralled. For one hour and 46 minutes they captivated me. I expected to go into it and hate it and spend most of that time bored and irritated by an arrogant auteur. Instead I was left thinking deeply about the human condition and how we interact when in relationship with one another. I L-O-V-E-D it, but a lot of folks on the internet loathed it. A friend recommended it and I’m glad she did. I think the hard lines on either side of love and loathe make it a great story to consider for yourself.
P.s. No, I didn’t forget the giveaway I promised last week. That is coming, life happened and I hoped and assumed you’d make room for understanding. I’ll be sending out details this week.
Also, if you’re enjoying this or if there’s something you’d like me to cover in a future letter—an element of your storytelling you may be struggling with, please let me know by leaving a comment below. I’m here to help.
Thanks for reading and I’ll “see” you next week. Whatever the world may bring, there will always be important stories that need you to tell them. I’ll be here to help.