Just this past weekend, when asked (again) why I had such good skin, I told my friend it was probably because I grew up indoors. There weren’t many kids who wanted to play with me, but I hardly noticed. My head was in another land. Story Land. At the library, I’d regularly put 25 books up on the counter to check out, and the librarians would look at me and always say, “Are you going to be able to read all these in a month?” Adults are always underestimating children.
Because I spent so much time in my bed, sprawled on the floor and hidden in cabinets (all great places to read in the summer), it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that real people had great stories too. But it did finally happen. I climbed out of the kitchen cabinet, turned off my flashlight, put away my books, and started to interact with people whose stories were not printed in black ink. And slowly I learned how to recognize and talk to people who had stories as interesting as those I found in my books. For this post, I'm going to share five strategies that I've learned for identifying great, natural storytellers and creating the context for their stories to emerge.
Together, these five strategies help you develop a sense for stories—I think of it as a seventh sense. If you grew up surrounded by great storytellers, this sense might come naturally. But for those of us who didn’t, it has to be developed. When searching for a great story, keep these five things in mind.
First: assume that everyone has a great story and put yourself in the position to listen to many, many people. Figure out what kinds of stories you like. For me it’s the stories of (in no particular order): small-time mechanics, farmers, immigrants, and children. So I put myself in positions where I hear those stories. Like work.
For example, I work at a catering company with a man who’s approaching 60. He used to tour the world as a dancer. Much of our time together is spent in a small storage room with florescent lighting and a concrete floor. My co-worker, let’s call him Hernandez, is talking about his mother again. His mother who was murdered in Mexico in 2003. As he talks, his hands arrange forks, pressing them back to back in neat order. He sets them in a cardboard box and repeats. I’m pretending not to listen. Because Hernandez is in the zone and if I treat him like this as an interview, he will stop telling his story. But I am listening. For me, storytime with Hernandez is sacred time. My other co-workers take out their cell-phones and text or play games. Hernandez is always talking. But that’s why I’m here. I applied for this job because I suspected there would be people working here who would have great stories.
Second: watch for the qualities of a good storyteller in people you listen to. A lot of people might have stories that will interest you, but not all of them will be able to tell their story yet. These qualities include but are not limited to: self-awareness, verbal ability, and emotional courage. For example, Hernandez is a dancer. He loves the spotlight. And, he once told me, he’s been to therapy. He can talk about things that maybe he couldn’t have ten years ago. He’s older. He’s well traveled. He lost his mom. When I first learned these details, I knew that not only was I provisionally curious about his life experience, but also that he had characteristics that are often found in a good storyteller.
But finding the right person, whose stories will interest you and who tells their stories well, won’t necessarily lead to that person telling you a good story, which leads me to my third strategy.
Third: listen for the tip-offs that the person is in go-mode. Sometimes you can feel when someone is ready to tell a story. Maybe they’re slightly friendlier. Or you both notice the same thing happening outside the window. These are trends; they’re not fool-proof. Recognizing when someone is ready to tell their story means paying closer attention. For example, I know Hernandez is going to tell a story when his voice changes. It’s a signal that something important will follow.
Fourth: value the act of listening itself as time well spent. Make time for it. For example, many of my favorite stories have been told in situations where I’m doing repetitive work; so that my hands are occupied, but my mind is free to listen. If it's not the polishing of knives, or plates, it’s something else. For example, the removal of a tire. The planting of seeds. Hands wrapped around scissors, turning construction paper. These sorts of situations lend themselves well to storytelling.
But you won’t connect with everyone. This brings me to my last strategy for searching for great stories.
Fifth: recognize when to end a conversation. Keep an ear out for the person who is telling a story that you feel like you’ve heard about a million times. Sometimes I forget that my time is valuable, and I’ll feel obliged to listen to a story even when I’m not interested. Ira Glass says you should be genuinely interested in the people you’re interviewing. I agree. Maybe you can’t connect to a person, but someone else will. Think of people as spinning roulette tables. Sometimes you meet and you align. Red on red. Black on black. Sometimes you don’t align at all. Shrug it off, give the wheel another spin. Maybe you’ll meet again in fifteen years.
Just a few weeks ago, I arrived at work, taking over for Hernandez. I brought our client, a tall, kind woman, a cup of coffee.
“Oh. I thought you would be the other guy.” She seemed disappointed to see me.
“I don’t blame you. He tells really good stories.”
“You’re right! He was just telling me one this morning.” Someone else had noticed and appreciated my favorite storyteller. Already, she and I knew something of each other.
Photo via flickr