Storytelling Tips from Two Little Ducks

It’s become a bit of a newsletter tradition for me. I go on vacation to get away from the day-to-day of interview gathering and script writing and editing and sound design. And instead, I find myself inspired by the storytelling all around me.

It happened last summer. And the summer before that. And the January before that!

Telling stories is how we interact with the world. It’s how we make sense of the events of our past. It’s how we attach meaning to the places that inspire us.

So I guess it’s not surprising that a storyteller finds lots of storytelling tips while on vacation!

(And yes, I know my husband and I are incredibly lucky to get to go on all these vacations. Travel is definitely a priority for us.)

But it’s also true that after visiting three countries in three weeks, I am TIRED. I’m jet lagged and sleep deprived and just altogether grumpy about being back in the real world.

So rather than listing everything I learned on this particular vacation, I’m going to limit myself to my top three storytelling tips from the past three weeks.

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Week 1: Gibraltar - Everyone Loves Little Rubber Duckies

Okay, stick with me here. We gotta rewind a bit.

Back in January, my husband and I were visiting Savannah, Georgia. And I came down with Covid.

Major bummer.

I was stuck in the hotel room for a few days. But my husband, Jerry, wasn’t sick. And he wanted to spend as little time in that germ-filled hotel room as possible!

On day 1, he went across the street from the hotel for breakfast and got a mimosa. And floating in his mimosa was a little yellow rubber duck.

When he came back to the hotel room, he handed me the duck, saying, “This is Enrique. He’s going to keep you company while I’m out.”

The next day, Jerry got another mimosa – and another duck. This one he named Juan Carlos.

Jerry put the duck in his pocket and went out again to explore the city.

Over the next couple of days, Juan Carlos sent Enrique photos from their adventures in Savannah.

Soon, I got better and we went back home. And I think Jerry just forgot that Juan Carlos was in his pocket? Because the next thing I know, he’s sending me photos of Juan Carlos from the brewery where he works.

And I’m sending him photos of Enrique, helping me out with Pro Tools on my computer at home.

Fast forward a few months, and Enrique and Juan Carlos have their own Instagram account.

Yep…we are the kind of people who make an Instagram account for our rubber ducks!

And so, as soon as we got to the airport to fly to Gibraltar, we started taking photos of the ducks in transit.

But here’s the funny thing, whenever someone saw us with the ducks, they’d smile. Or nod. Or introduce themselves. Or ask questions. Or tell us stories of their own rubber ducks.

As two human travelers, we were easy to ignore. Unmemorable.

But as two human travelers with two rubber duck companions, we were suddenly VERY interesting!

So what’s the storytelling lesson in all of this?

Do we all need to find a diner that serves mimosas with ducks floating in them?

Don’t be ridiculous.

But it is a reminder to find the thing about your story that is RELATABLE.

We all look for stories that are crazy and weird – with lots of twists and turns to keep the audience guessing.

But we sometimes forget to connect all that crazy and weird to something simple and easy. Something everyone can understand.

And the truth is, when we were in a foreign country, telling strangers the story of our ducks, my husband and I were really telling them the story of us.

Who we are. How we interact. What makes us tick.

It wasn’t ever really about the ducks.

Week 2: Spain - The Power of Over-Familiarity

While visiting the Spanish city of Úbeda, our tour guide brought us to a beautiful square surrounded by ornate Renaissance style buildings. And he told us that the buildings had all been commissioned by one man – Francisco de los Cobos y Molina.

And I gotta say, by this point in our trip, my brain was kinda tired of trying to remember the names of old, dead, rich people.

But then the guide said something I definitely didn’t see coming.

“We’re gonna call him Frank.”.

I thought this was weird. Clearly, this super rich, super powerful, super SPANISH advisor to Emperor Charles V would never have been called Frank.

But as we learned more about “Frank,” it began to make more sense. Because our tour guide didn’t actually care if we remembered the name of this very rich, very powerful man.

Instead, he wanted us to focus on his motivations – the forces that led him to commission these massive, ornate buildings. The reasons why he was so wealthy. And the choices he made when deciding how to spend his wealth.

And when the guide got to the crux of his story – how “Frank” had spent a massive fortune on the beautiful and lavish building that would serve as his tomb, only to be buried in a plain box underneath the floor, we didn’t scratch our heads and think, “That’s strange. Why would he do that?”

Instead, we were thinking, “That’s so Frank!”

So yeah, I’m not saying that you should change the name of your main character to make it easier for exhausted American tourists to remember.

That would be ridiculous.

But I am saying that you shouldn’t spend too long drilling into the details of your story that are unimportant. Instead, find a way to help your audience connect with the details that matter.

Dig in and find the squishy center. Really figure out what makes your characters tick.

And don't be afraid to sound overly familiar. You shouldn’t hold distance between the characters in your story and yourself, the storyteller.

So yeah…first names are fine. REAL first names. Or to be more precise, the first names people use when introducing themselves.

We are still journalists, after all.

Week 3: Portugal - Emotion is the Universal Language

For the last few days of our trip, my husband and I went back to Lisbon. We’d been there a few years ago and loved it. And we knew we’d need a couple of lower stress days at the end of our trip.

Going to a Fado restaurant was one of Jerry’s favorite things about our first trip to Lisbon. And this time, we knew what to expect.

If you’ve never been to a Fado restaurant, let me explain.

Basically, the experience starts like any other dining experience. You make a reservation. Show up on time. Read a menu. Place your order. Get your food.

But at a Fado restaurant, at some point, the lights will be turned down. The waitstaff will disappear. Your fellow diners will stop talking.

Complete and total silence.

And then some musicians will walk up to the front of the room and start performing.

All of the songs are in Portuguese, a language only 3.3% of the world’s population speaks.

My husband and I don’t speak Portuguese. Many of the other diners didn’t speak Portuguese either. And the performers don’t tell you what the song is about.

But they didn’t need to. Because we felt the emotion of each one of those songs. We knew what was happening, even though we didn’t understand a single word.

Emotion really is a universal language. Translation is not necessary..

So what’s the lesson for storytellers?

Well, first of all…lean into emotion. I think we all know that we should be doing that!

But also…spending an evening listening to Fado reminded me that I can explain less and feel more.

Not every story beat needs to be fully dissected. Analyzed. Justified.

I don’t need to jump right in with more information. Or break the tension. Or move on to the next thing.

Sometimes, I can just let the emotion carry the moment.

A few quick-ish announcements this week.

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