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Improve Your Storytelling

It’s an ancient art. A storyteller has captures his listener’s with voice and gestures. As the tale unfolds people learn the heritage of their people, weep over their tragedies, rejoice in their triumphs. The stories express deep longings and fears, cherished dreams and hopes, values and behaviors to imitate or avoid.

Would you like to improve your storytelling? Peter Guber can help. Guber is producer of films such as Rainman and The Color Purple. His films have earned over $3 billion dollars worldwide and earned over 50 Academic Award nominations. This is man who knows a lot about story telling.

Great Storytellers Are Great “Truth Tellers”

At the core of every great story is a great truth, Guber explains. At root storytelling is “truth telling.” Great stories point to truth about the meaning of our world and our lives. Effective storytellers, Guber believes, master the four truths of storytelling.

1.  Truth to the Storyteller

A consummate storyteller “knows his own deepest values and reveals them in his story with honest and candor. When a story is congruent with the teller’s own values and beliefs it bears the hallmarks of authenticity.  Authenticity is important because the storyteller wants to “enter the hearts of his listeners,” Guber says, “because he must enter the hearts of his listeners. Because people know the power of their heart to move them, people guard access to this part of their soul. The storyteller uses the truth of a well-told story to bypass these guards and speak deep truth to the heart. “So although the mind may be part of your target,” Guber says, “the heart is the bulls-eye.”

Scripture gives a marvelous example. Filled with pride and sin David sits with the confidence of absolute power on his throne as Nathan tells the story of a wealthy and unscrupulous man who for his own pleasure stole the treasured lamb of a poor family. His story slips past David’s defenses, speaks directly to his conscience, and breaks his heart. Such behavior is an outrage, David proclaims before all in his court, and, “The man who did this deserves to die.” Within seconds the powerful king is reduced to a sinner, crying out in shame to God: “Against, you, you only, have I sinned.” Nathan has hit the heart’s bulls-eye. His story is consistent with his own deep values, and he has become a truth teller to God’s king.

2. Truth to the Audience

Great storytellers take time to understand what their listeners care about and want to hear. They realize that when the audience gives its time to the storyteller, a contract has been struck between the storyteller and the audience. “The ending of a great story is the first thing the audience remembers,” Guber reminds us, “The litmus test for a good story is not whether listeners walk away happy or sad. . . it’s whether the ending is emotionally fulfilling, and experience worth owning, a great ‘a ha!”

The storyteller’s goal is to get his listeners to “own” the story as their own truth. When this happens they become advocates for the story. As they tell it to others they spread the truth of the story virally to ever larger audiences.

For example, the Apostle Paul tells us of how Timothy’s faith lived first in his grandmother Lois and then in his mother Eunice. We’ve all seen children rapt with attention snuggle with their mother as she reads a tale that leads them into the heart of adventure, danger, and heroism. In the warmth of their blankets and her love they learn lessons about faith and bravery, foolishness and wisdom. The bond of affection reinforces truths expressed.  Through her stories, she becomes a truth teller to her children, shaping their personality and character for all the years to come.

3. Truth to the Moment

“A great storyteller never tells the story the same way twice,” Guber says, because the way the story is told will vary when it is told to 2,000 guests at a conference compared to when it is told to one friend across a dining room table.

The storyteller senses the needs and emotional and mental state of her audience and adapts. The truth of the story remains, but the storytelling is crafted and shaped to reach the particular listeners.

A businessman encounters his neighbor and initiates a conversation about spiritual things. He knows the old adage that “statistics tell but stories sell.” So he tells the story of his own life and how faith in Jesus has made all the difference. This account of personal experience moves his neighbor to consider for himself who Jesus really is. The businessman man is a witness to Jesus–a “truth teller” to his neighbor.

4. Truth to the Mission

Finally, Guber says, the story must be true to the mission. Great storytellers are devoted to a cause beyond themselves. Their stories embody a commitment to a personal life mission, and the storyteller hopes others will adopt as their own. “They infuse their stories with meaning because they really believe in the mission.” Great storytellers, Guber says, “tap into the human yearning to be part of a worthy cause. “When truth to the mission conflicts with truth to the audience, truth to the mission must win out,” Guber warns us. If the storyteller compromises her own integrity, the story loses much of its power to convince minds and move hearts.

5. Truth to the Truth

I want to add a fifth to Guber’s four points. Great storytelling is not a matter of telling people whatever they most want to hear. The storyteller has a goal, and although she may adjust the telling of the story to better connect with the audience, she must take care not to compromise her mission. A great story is also “true” in the sense that Francis Schaeffer used to call “true truth.”  The truth of a great story transcends the storyteller, the audience, the moment, and even the mission. A great story tells us something about what is “truly true.”

Telling the Greatest Story

Paul had a miraculous ministry in Ephesus. In an encounter with a demon, the sons of Sceva were set upon by the demon and fled bleeding and naked from its fury. “”I know Jesus, and I know Paul,” the evil spirit said, “But who are you?” After this remarkable event Luke gives us this comment in Acts 19:17, “The story of what happened spread quickly all through Ephesus, to Jews and Greeks alike. A solemn fear descended on the city, and the name of the Lord Jesus was greatly honored.”

For 2,000 years the story of the power of Jesus over sin, evil, and death has transformed lives, communities, and nations. We tell the story of our great God and King Jesus as we wait for moment of his return. No story has ever carried more truth or won over more hearts and mind.

And one day it will be clear that no story will ever have a better ending!

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Guy Saffold

I’ve observed leaders for many years, always asking the question, “What should a person do to lead in more Christian ways?” It’s often not an easy question to answer in the midst of the day-to-day events that whirl around a leader. Here I explore some of the dilemmas and answers. I also post some devotional thoughts about the application of biblical teaching.