What I Learned on My Summer Vacation
In my little suburban town west of Boston, it is officially the first day of school. And so, I thought, why not lean on a common first day of school exercise in this very newsletter?
If you've been reading this newsletter for a while, you might have noticed that I sometimes find storytelling inspiration in some pretty weird places.
I can't help it. Storytelling is my job, and it's also my passion. So it's not surprising that I am always looking for ways to improve.
And in June, while on vacation in Ireland, I was reminded of some of the most important things to remember when telling stories.
So, let me set the scene for you. It all started when my husband and I flew to Ireland to attend a bluegrass festival.
Yeah. Bluegrass. In Ireland. It was amazing.
We had a lovely few days at the festival, and then we drove down to Kinsale.
I am usually an obsessive vacation planner, but there's been no time for vacation planning lately. As a result, we showed up without anything resembling an itinerary.
And as we were checking into our hotel, my husband got sucked into a conversation with the hotel clerk, who is apparently a huge NFL fan. (If I remember right, he roots for the Pittsburgh Steelers – which feels about as weird as flying to Ireland to listen to bluegrass music. No offense to Ireland, bluegrass, or the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
And while my husband and the hotel clerk talked about American football, I found myself browsing those brochures that are often available in hotel lobbies. And almost immediately I spied the brochure for Don & Barry's Historic Stroll.
I wish I had a photo of the brochure. It was super simple. Big letters. A cheesy logo. And two cartoon figures. Don and Barry, I presume?
Anyway, according to the brochure, the tour runs every day at the same time from the same spot. No reservations required. And you only pay at the end. And only if you enjoyed the tour.
As my husband would say, "That's how they get ya."
So, the next morning, we met Barry at the prescribed spot. And what followed was a 90-minute master class in Kinsale history...
And don't worry, I'm not gonna make you sit through a history lesson. But I am going to introduce you to Barry…and some of the really awesome storytelling techniques he used on this tour.
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One of the biggest struggles in narrative storytelling is explaining our intentions. For Barry, that meant that he wanted his customers to understand what to expect on the tour. So right at the start he announced that the tour would be "story based." And then he described what he meant by that.
He said that the stories he was going to tell would have a "beginning, middle and end."
In podcasting, we don't usually have to explain this concept to our audience. Listeners understand. Storytelling podcasts are pretty common.
But we do often have to explain the concept to the people we are interviewing. And so quite often, right before an interview begins, I find myself saying a whole jumble of words, hoping to very, very quickly explain this concept.
So I'll say things like, "This is for a narrative/storytelling type show." And I'll usually follow up with something along the lines of, "That means that I'm going to be trying to get you to tell your story in your words, not mine."
And that works pretty well. But I often forget to explain what I mean by "story." And Barry's solution was sooo simple!
One tiny quibble, though. I generally find that "beginning, middle and end" can cause confusion. That's because those words have double meanings. They can apply to chronology as well as to placement.
So, technically, every sentence has a beginning, middle and end. Even if there's nothing narrative about the sentence at all.
And that's why I usually like to say that stories have a "before, during and after."
A story is a sequence of events. And most of those events can be classified as the "during."
"This happened, which caused this other thing to happen, and then you wouldn't f-ing believe it, but this happened…"
But to really have impact, your story must show change over time. There has to be something about the state of your world (or the state of a character in your world) that has changed as a result of your series of events.
So the "before" and "after" are key. They show the listener what has changed. Why the story is important.
Taking Advantage of Chronology
Barry designed his tour so that it started at the beginning. Or, at least at the beginning of the story that he was going to tell. And then he guided us through the streets of Kinsale, not at all in a straight line, so that we could really follow along with history.
Sure, there were times when he had to skip forward in history a bit…or rewind to an earlier time. That happens! But for the most part, we were given the feeling of moving through time in a mostly forward direction.
Look, I love a juicy "e" structure as much as the next gal, but sometimes it's just really nice to start at the beginning and end at the end.
For those who need a reminder, the "e" structure starts at a moment of great tension. And then, often before that tension is resolved, it rewinds and starts the story from the beginning. Super useful. I use it often.
But sometimes I worry that maybe I use it too often?
Remember, every time you mess with chronology, you add confusion. So tread carefully.
So, here we are, walking around Kinsale with Barry. Hearing these stories. Wondering how they're all connected.
And then he comes out with...
"Now listen to what I'm going to say in the next two minutes, because I'm going to connect the dots."
Oh, my. Chills.
You better believe, we all listened very closely for the next two minutes. And Barry did, indeed, connect the dots.
There are lots of ways to do this in your storytelling, and you don't have to be quite as overt as Barry was. But you absolutely should be letting the listener know when they need to pay extra-special attention.
Focus drifts. Attention wanes. And that's okay…as long as you bring the listener back for the important stuff.
A signpost is a way to remind the listener of where you are in a story. It's just a little touchpoint. "Here's what we already know. Here's what we're going to talk about next."
Signposts are especially useful to let the listener know that you are skipping forward or backward through time. And so my ears totally perked up when at the end of an anecdote, Barry told us…
"Now, can you imagine growing up with stories like that, and then…"
Ooh..yes. Thank you.
You've given me a roadmap. Even though I don't yet know the story that you're about to tell, I know how it connects to the things you've already told me. I know why it's important.
Note to self: Do more of this.
If you're like me, you are telling true stories.
But whose truth? Which version of the truth? Can we really know what's true at all?
If we're being truly honest with ourselves, we're often guessing a little. We're relying on our sources. We're trying to peer through the veil of history. Which can be tough, even when "history" was just last Thursday.
It's not easy. And we're not always going to get it right.
But that doesn't mean that we can't try. It just means that we need to be transparent about the limitations of our knowledge.
So, the same thing happened with Barry. By the time my husband and I took his tour, we had already heard about Anne Bonny, a pirate born in Kinsale. She was captured and sentenced to death, but her execution was postponed because she claimed to be pregnant.
But the thing is, a previous tour guide had pretended to know what actually happened to Anne Bonny. And maybe that story was true. Maybe it was not. At best, it was an educated guess.
But Barry embraced that uncertainty. He told us a couple of different versions of her story. He told us that nobody really knows what happened to her. And then he told us…
"I believe X happened…and I'm going to prove it to you."
Ahhh…this is soooo good.
Truth is really wiggly. It's hard to pin down. And that's okay.
You don't actually need to know, with 100% certainty, what actually happened. You just need to be able to make a good argument.
And -- this part is really important -- you need to acknowledge, without hesitation or embarrassment, that this is your best guess. Because sometimes the truth is unknown. And unknowable.
And there's great power in saying, "Here's what I believe …and here's WHY I believe it."
Two quick notes this week:
First, entries for the 2023 International Women's Podcast Awards
are open from now until September 22.
These awards are really fun in that they look at specific moments in podcasts that have a big impact. It's a neat way to think about the work that we do, and awards are a great way to get some extra earballs on your hard work.
So if you're a woman or a person of a marginalized gender, check out the all details here
. And if you're an independent producer who can't afford the entry fee, there are scholarships available. So don't let money stop you from applying!
And second, just a friendly reminder that if you enjoy this newsletter, please tell your friends about it. My heart does a little happy dance whenever I see those new subscriptions roll in!