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Storytelling not as simple as it seems

6 mins read

By Scott Graber

When I was 17, it was decided that I would leave my family — then living in Germany — and move to Florence, SC. 

My grandmother lived in Florence, and it was thought that living with her for my last year in high school would reduce the tension that had developed between me and my father.

When I arrived in Florence, I was not, like my friend Pat Conroy, an athlete. (I had previously been a competitive swimmer, but Florence had, some years earlier, closed its swimming pool in order to avoid integrating that facility.) 

Nor was I a scholar. Nor did I have the requisite ‘57 Ford (or Chevrolet) or any interest in “Fireball” Roberts, Cale Yarborough or NASCAR. McClenaghan High School would be the third and final chapter of an uneven, unremarkable high school experience. 

Though not distinguished, I was different — different in one respect. I had traveled in Spain, France, Italy and Austria. I had seen the Costa Brava before the arrival of condominiums. I had driven on the Nurburgring the day before the Grand Prix. 

I had been to East Germany when it was a cold, hostile, communist place. And I could describe where I had been and what I had seen.

And so I learned to tell stories about where I had been. It was an obvious effort to fit in, to be a part of a small town where I was late to the dance, very late to the dance. 

And so, in time, I also learned that it helped if the story one told was funny. It helped especially when one was talking to girls.

Storytelling became part of my way of communication — my talking. In those days I had a finite number of stories — I was only 17 for God’s sake — and learned that one could fail if one was not careful. 

So, this morning, I was stunned to see a piece in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Please Stop Telling That Same Story.”

The WSJ begins by telling us about pitfalls and tarpits to be avoided. 

“… the bonding benefits of storytelling only work if you’re good at it. Many of us, even those who tell stories for a living, are not. We repeat stories we’ve told before. We tell tales that don’t have a point. We fail to pay attention to our audience, choosing stories that are inappropriate or ignoring clues that our listeners are bored.”

And we’ve all been at dinner parties when a story — a story with no connection to the conversation under way — comes forth unbidden. If this story is one we’ve heard before then we move from borderline annoyance to full-throttle anger. But usually we sit and listen. We say to ourselves, ‘This friendship is important, too important to get up and walk out of the room’. And so we stay, usually we smolder and go silent, wondering “is this friendship is truly worth this worn out, self- aggrandizing tale?”

The WSJ goes on to say that a good story will energize the room. But there have to be fleshed-out characters, tension, and most importantly, a reason one is telling this particular story at this particular moment. 

I myself have learned that a story works best if it is funny, self-disclosing and self-deprecating. And the Journal tells us if we check these boxes, the listener’s brain secretes dopamine, which focuses our attention, and oxytocin, which helps us connect. 

“This produces a state called immersion, in which the listener is both absorbed in a story and willing to be persuaded,” says Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University in California.

But then there is that moment when one looks around the table and spots that vacant-eyed, pursed-lipped look that screams, “You’ve told this one before, Scott. Many, many times before.” 

This is confirmed when you see your best friend’s wife looking out the window and silently mouthing the same words you are speaking. And yes, this is the dilemma that some of us, in our old age, face on a regular basis. We’ve just run out of material, out of content. Our portfolio is empty.

The Wall Street Journal deals with the lack-of-new-content conundrum head-on: “If you’re telling a story you’ve told before own up to it. New research shows that people who repeat stories are viewed as less genuine or authentic—unless they acknowledge their repetition.”

And so we say words like, “I know you’ve heard this ‘chestnut’ before. But its essential—for my evaporating, increasingly fragile self-esteem — that we go round this track on more time …”

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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