If you want to improve your skills as a storyteller, there are countless systems and resources to help you, from three-act structure, beat sheets, and the hero’s journey, to free classes from on the subject from Pixar.
But according to a thought-provoking new post by communication consultant and author Garr Reynolds on his blog Presentation Zen, all these tools and tricks won’t help you unless you have one more essential ingredient — something worthwhile to say.
Structure is important, but content is king.
Great stories aren’t just about great technique, he points out. They’re also about great content. Which, oddly, is a point that rarely gets mentioned.
Why is that? Probably because finding anecdotes and wisdom to fill your stories is far less straightforward than straightening out convoluted plots or sprucing up wooden characters. In fact, having great content to pull from usually depends on having lived an interesting life.
Bill Murray, illustrates this well, Reynolds writes. Murray is clearly a gifted storyteller and natural comedian, but he’s also an interesting guy. And it’s his willingness to get stuck into experiences and closely observe the world, his fellow humans, and his own foibles that populates and animates his stories.
It’s a fact Murray himself recognizes, notes Reynolds. Years ago when radio host Howard Stern asked Murray how he became a good storyteller, this was his answer:
I don’t think you’re born with it. You have to hear stories and you have to live stories. You have to have a bunch of experiences and be able to say ‘Here’s something that happened to me yesterday….’ And if you can make people laugh by telling them what happened to you, then you are telling the story well.
Or as Reynolds sums up this wisdom: “You have to live a life to tell a life… it’s important to have a ‘bunch of experiences’ from which to draw.”
Are your stories boring because your life is boring? That’s fixable.
So why does nobody mention the fact that rich life experience is an essential ingredient of great storytelling to newbies struggling to learn the art? Probably because it sounds harsh (and hopeless) to tell someone, “your stories are boring because your life is boring.” But in many cases, it’s also true. And truth is a prerequisite for improvement.
The only way to fix the issue is to get out of your comfort zone and experience more, observe more, and ponder more. It’s not hopeless or up to fate. There are practical steps you can take to make your life more interesting. And that will almost certainly make your stories more interesting too (the tools of the craft I mentioned in the intro will certainly help as well).
Want an illustration of how a keenly observed and deeply felt life experience results in a great story? Check out a quick but memorable example from Murray in Reynolds post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.