Storytelling Tips

Through our “Be Here: Main Street” project (#bHereMainSt), a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program, we’ve had an opportunity to travel about the country listening to fascinating community-oriented stories. We know a good story when we hear it, but what exactly makes a story compelling? We recently chatted with storytelling expert Shanai Matteson, from the Water Bar & Public Studio in Minneapolis, to dissect the anatomy of a story worth listening to. Here’s what she had to say. For anyone embarking on a storytelling or story-collecting project, this is an essential place to start.

“When I’m gathering, telling, or  prompting stories from other people, these are the things that I think are helpful.”

1. Personal Voice

“I think better stories come from speaking or writing in our own voices, and not trying to sound a particular way, or to censor ourselves for a perceived audience. Tell the story as you’d tell it to someone close to you. Talk about your own experience, and if you want to, how that experience changed you. I try to discourage stories about other people’s experiences.

If someone is uncertain about their voice, a good exercise is to have them go into a public place and to just listen to how other people talk. It’s a good exercise for writers to develop authentic-sounding dialogue, but it also makes a person listen more intently to the ways they speak and tell stories, which can be helpful.”

2. Places / Foods / Things We Love

“Asking people to talk about places they love, and why; (or foods they love, or anything they love). Basically, stories about what we love and how we came to love those things tend to be good for connecting with others.”

3. Exploring Emotions 

“A lot of people worry that they don’t have any stories to tell, or that their stories are ‘boring,’ but people rarely get bored when they hear stories about how other people experience human emotions, especially the emotions we are often afraid to talk about. It’s like we’re wired to connect on that level, so if a person can’t think of a story, I’ll ask them to talk about a time they felt real joy / anger / fear / shame / jealousy. Usually, that gets them to something.”

4. Details & Sensory Experiences

“What did you notice first? How did it taste, feel, or sound, etc.? What was going through your mind? What are some other details about the scene you can add to really transport people there?”

5. How Not What

“Stories about how a person did something, or how something happened, are often better than stories about what happened. Asking ‘how?’ prompts a storyteller to slow down and can open up more personal and reflective accounts, especially if you give yourself time to really follow the ‘How?’ thread back in time a bit.”

Shanai Matteson is a writer, artist and arts organizer who leads and supports collaborative public art and design projects. She’s interested in work at the margins of established fields and practices, and believes that edges and intersections provide fertile ground for artists and designers to learn and create, with and in community.


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