Telling Your Story. No, Really.

Posted by Deborah Vaughn On October - 23 - 2012

Deb Vaughn

We get asked to “tell our story” all the time in the arts. Who are you? Why do you value this work? What is it that you hope to accomplish? How will you get there?

Funders demand it from grant applicants. Legislators require it of state agencies, lobbyists, and constituents. Individual artists have to do it to justify their work.

Even as a working professional, being able to concisely “tell the story” of what I do all day is an important skill, especially at family reunions, when Crazy Uncle Dave asks: “Now, what is it you do again?”

But rarely do any of us do it well. We get so wrapped up in the desired outcome of telling our story that we forget: the best way to achieve that outcome is to tell a compelling story. It’s as simple as that.

At a professional development training earlier this month, hosted by SpeakeasyDC, I was reminded of what it actually takes to TELL A STORY.

The facilitators asked us to think of a time when the arts impacted our lives.

We started by telling the story out loud to someone else (writing or typing your story will activate the “mean writing teacher” that sits on your shoulder, bogging you down in grammar and punctuation and sentence structure. Keep it verbal and keep going). This helps you and your listener determine which points are memorable and which are expendable.

Then our partner told the story back to us. See how it is no longer MY story, but THE story? That’s what we’re going for: finding a universal truth that the listener can connect to their own life. That’s the whole point to a good story. And when pitching a project to a funder, isn’t that your goal?

Then, we went in the time machine: back to seventh grade Language Arts class. Yes, this:

It may seem overly simple, but all we did was apply a plot diagram to our story.

And here’s the thing: it wasn’t the tedious exercise I remembered from seventh grade. It was actually a tool that helped me find the details needed to carry the listener on the story’s journey, to flesh out the protagonist, to make the most of the climax and to drive home the resolution.

Aided by skillful facilitators, the story took on a complete arc and became a powerful advocacy tool.

Thinking about your organization, school or project in terms of a plot diagram can be a tool for helping you tell your story more effectively. And if you need a little extra coaching, try connecting with a writing group in your area. The basic elements of a compelling story doesn’t change, regardless of your desired outcome.

What story would you like to tell more effectively? Who is your protagonist? What expositional details does the listener need to know?

What is the conflict? (You HAVE to have a central conflict!) What are the rising actions that build suspense? What is the climax? Tell me a story!

8 Responses to “Telling Your Story. No, Really.”

  1. Cassandra says:

    Deb,

    I just wanted to thank you for your post! I have been following ARTSblog for awhile now because I am an actor/educator in Chicago and have found the articles so informative and interesting. Your article hit on the head what my children’s theatre company is currently trying to do, which is get people’s stories! I never thought it would be challenging to get people just to share with us. However, what I’ve learned is that people are afraid or unsure how to share, even when its about telling us a simple memory about a childhood theatre experience. I love that you encourage people to know their story :D .

    Thank you!

    Cassandra

  2. Megan says:

    Deborah,

    What a fantastic post! I think often we struggle to tell our story and I like the idea of breaking it down into the basics that we teach our students in writing. I don’t think I’ve ever considered telling the “conflict” because so often the storytelling is more of a summary. Great share!

    Megan

  3. Thanks for this practical approach! I also like to think of storytelling as a kind of translation–from facts and figures to meaning and relevance. Also thinking of WHO the listener adds another element in the consideration of how the story is told:the legislator will listen with different ears than a parent,for instance.
    Thanks again for sharing!

  4. [...] Vaughn, Deborah. “Telling Your Story. No, Really.” ARTSblog. Americans for the Arts, 23 Oct. 2012. <http://blog.artsusa.org/2012/10/23/telling-your-story-no-really/&gt;. [...]

  5. Alexandra Manzino says:

    This is not what I expected at all. This a very useful strategy for how to go about storytelling. One may think that storytelling is free to any rules with no guidelines or structures, but this is well described and well put together. I also noticed that this is a very versatile structure for storytelling within any field that requires writing, not just the arts world. But especially in the arts world, it is crucial to be able to articulate your ideas to masses of people.

  6. Taysia says:

    Structure is very important when telling a story or writing anything, we learn this diagram of structure in middle school and high school but we often forget how useful and helpful it is to the person telling the story as well as the reader. But in the art world we usually see either a long confusing story or a short and simple one, it is often hard to balance the two.

  7. Tim Mikulski says:

    Good point, Taysia. Thanks for stopping by.

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