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The Next Faithful Step

How to Tell a Story

CF565: Empowering the People of God

Christian leaders spend their days telling stories in a variety of settings. Sometimes they tell stories across a table at Starbucks; other times they tell a story as they sit next to a hospital bed. Some stories are part of a sermon or Bible studies, while others are part of a committee report or staff meeting. In each of those settings, the Christian leader makes spiritual sense of the world by weaving together three kinds of stories. A leader takes your story and my story, weaves it together with the biblical story, to create a shared story of future hope.

It makes sense, then, for Christian leaders to think a bit about how to tell stories. In this exercise, we will practice telling a story. Let’s start with a story—one of your stories. Picture yourself in one of the settings I just described. Perhaps you are in Starbucks talking to a teenager whose first boyfriend just broke up with her or a high school senior who is stressing because she does not know how to pick a college. Or perhaps you are visiting someone in the hospital—say, someone who is scared to be left alone for the night. Or, perhaps, you are writing a yearend report for the ministry you lead at church or talking to a donor about your hopes for that ministry. Or, maybe you are talking to Michael Win. Pick a situation. Now write down a story that you can picture telling in that situation. (Aim for a couple of paragraphs rather than a couple of pages.) Think of it as a story you would speak rather than one for the printed page. If you need a sample of a story, read this one.

Actually write out the story. Don’t just think about it. The point of these exercises is to give you practice with stories. If you just “think about” a story, it’s a bit like thinking about lifting weights. It does not really build any new muscles.

Now that you have a story, let’s see if we can improve it.  We will start by listening to insights from Ira Glass, who hosts This American Life on NPR. It is a radio show filled with stories. There are four segments to the Glass video. He aims the videos at people who want to learn video production and radio podcasting. But the same insights apply to Christian leaders who tell stories.

Ira Glass suggests that you need to combine two things: an anecdote and a moment of reflection. The anecdote should be a sequence of actions that includes some kind of “bait” (i.e. something in the way the story is told that draws the listener into the rest of the story) and it should answer the question, “What new thing does the story tell me?”

For example, Eric Lander tells a story called “Why I Teach” as part of (a collection of stories). In it, he frequently finds himself saying, “It gets stranger and stranger…” as a way to introduce the next section. And it seems through the fourteen-minute story that he is just talking about an amusing thing that happened to him. But along the way, he gives enough hints that you realize that he will bring this story around at the end to a moment of reflection (i.e. a place where the listener realizes what the story means). But it is not until he reveals a crucial fact at the end of the story (i.e. that the two lawyers he's been describing are not random lawyers, but the two attorneys who founded The Innocence Project), that you realize how the bait has drawn you forward so that he can explain “why I teach.”

Go back now and look at your story. Ira Glass says that “it takes perseverance to interweave” an anecdote and a moment of reflection. It likely does not come naturally the first time you tell the story. As you look at your story, jot down some ideas about the bait you used in telling the story and the how your listener would answer Glass’s key question, “What new thing does it tell me?”

Don’t re-write the story yet. Listen to Glass’s next piece of insight.

Glass talks about how hard it is to find good stories. For most of us, we are not interviewing people looking for stories. Instead, we are combing our experience and the stories we have read and seen looking for something that provides insight. He makes two points, however, that apply to any of us who search for stories. “Find the decent stories takes as long as telling the stories” and “kill bad stories so that better stories can live.”

Think back on the process you used to select the story you were going to write for this assignment. You likely (hopefully) did not just run with the first story that came to mind. You probably considered a bunch of stories. When I am putting together a project that requires me to tell a story (such as a sermon or an article), I usually jot down a list of all the stories that I think might apply. I don’t write out the story; I just give it a title that helps me recall the story. I might write “Climbing trees to reach the moon” or “Elizabeth’s first song” or “Entropy is winning.” I know what those titles mean. That’s enough to keep stories in my head. Then, after I have a list, I write little notes next to the stories suggesting how they might apply to the situation or setting. I also draw arrows that show connections between the stories. The first story is often not the right story.

Another way of making the point that the first story is often not the right story is to say, as Ira Glass does, that “failure is a big part of success.” It takes a lot of sifting through bad results until you can build something good. My advisor at Yale (who had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize) used to say that “there is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” And then to drive the point home, he told us about writing the article that became his big break, the one that got him noticed on the national stage. He re-wrote the whole article over twenty times before it was finally accepted for publication. That’s what Glass means when he says, “you keep trying stuff until something becomes great; you keep going until you get lucky.”

But that means you cannot start on a project at ten o’clock the night before it is due. You have to work on it many times—returning to it again and again. There is no shame in a bad first draft. But it is embarrassing to turn that first draft in and pretend it was your best effort.

There is a problem, however, for people who want to get better. And it’s a problem Glass describes in the video.

What’s the problem for people who want to get better? For the first couple of years, your taste is more advanced than your talent. You want to write sermons, teach lessons, and counsel people because you know how powerful it is when people do those things well. And you likely have good enough taste to recognize that you are not yet very good at those things. So what do you do?

Glass says that you have to preserve. In short, don’t quit. Spend time every day and every week getting better. One class will NOT do it any more than a few driving lessons will make you a good driver. Every time you have a chance to tell a story, pay attention to how you tell it. Every time you watch a movie or listen to an interview on the radio, pay attention to how they tell the story. Become a connoisseur of storytelling. Listen to how comedians tell jokes and newscasters report the news.

Glass describes something that we have, in another place, called “temporary incompetence.” The only way to get better is to keep working at it.

Scott Simon, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition, is also interested in storytelling. Watch the video, and write down what you think are Simon’s key ideas.

Now let’s apply Simon’s insights to your story. We can summarize Simon’s insight by saying, “Give them something to repeat to others.” After someone heard your story, what part of it would you want them to repeat? Is there something in the story that stands out? And does it apply to the situation you originally hoped to address.

Finally, Simon advises you to “speak conversationally” in “short, breathable sections.” That means that you may not be able to follow all the grammar rules that you learned in high school. For example, your English teacher did not want you to use sentence fragments. Because they are not grammatically correct. And she told you not to start a sentence with And, But or Or. When you are speaking a story, it’s best not to be trapped by those rules.

Now it’s time to re-visit your story. Go back and see if you can create a better story by following the insights that Ira Glass and Scott Simon provide.

Don’t erase the first draft of your story. Simply make a new copy so that you can put the old version side by side. Turn in both the old and the new versions—and bring printouts of each to class.