How to create a cinema for the mind.
Humans connect with emotions, not facts. So the best way to put your ideas in the world is by telling stories.
Yet, many people don’t know how to captivate an audience. They recite a list of events, get lost in abstractions, or take away the surprise before even starting.
As a result, the audience feels bored and doesn’t listen. Instead of wondering where a story will take them, all they care about is when it will finally end.
My dad is the best storyteller I know, but I didn’t inherit his skills. My stories sucked. And while I was convinced you can learn most things in life, I thought storytelling had more to do with innate talent than learnable traits.
Turns out I was wrong.
Storytelling is a skill you can learn. After completing a TED masterclass, studying Matthew Dicks, and practicing in public, I discovered a pattern most bad storytellers have in common.
1) They recite events in chronological order
When asked about their vacation, we all know people who give a list of locations and activities. “Well, our first stop was in a beautiful hotel in Paris, where we went to Louvre and blah, blah, blah.”
Listeners don’t want to hear meaningless lists. I’m sorry for all of my friends who had to listen to my backpack stops through South America and whether I liked the hostels.
The problem is: People can’t connect with things. Instead, they connect with emotions and moments of insight and transformation.
What to do:
Think about a blockbuster moment: A transformational insight that forever changed the way you think about a specific topic.
One single incident in a seemingly meaningless setting can mean so much more than the best holiday scenery. People connect with stories they can associate with, not with the stuff that has never happened to them.
Don’t talk about a Machupicchu marathon, but share the moment where you found trust in humanity because a stranger returned a lost wallet. Don’t share details about hotel facilities but about the moment you felt homesick because you realized relationships matter most.
To find these meaningful moments, ask yourself: When did you feel angry, loved, surprised, moved, or in awe? Then, recreate the build-up towards the emotion.
Great storytellers guide through the transformation from one feeling to another. The best stories reflect change over time.
2) They tell stories about their heroic self
Would you rather hear about how a failed exam and bad breakup led to chronic depression and my six-month escape to India or about the time I sent only one application and landed my dream job?
Me too. Perfectionism is boring. Nobody wants to hear about the time something ran down smoothly. Especially not if the story has a bragging undertone.
Ego-centeredness leads to bad stories. We don’t want to hear a flawless hero’s journey. We want to see other people struggle as we do. World-class storyteller Matthew Dicks wrote:
“Failure is more engaging than success.”
What to do:
Dare to be vulnerable because this is what moves listeners emotionally. We love to listen to people who truthfully share their struggles. Honesty is freaking attractive.
Share the times you’ve failed and your lessons learned. The times you desperately wanted to achieve something, but you didn’t.
Being honest with each other allows us to strengthen our social bonds and form deep, meaningful connections.
3) Bad storytellers don’t know when to be quiet
Dr. Brené Brown once wrote we should be as passionate about listening as we are about wanting to be heard.
Many of us feel the urge to say something, to at least share their opinion, but hardly anyone is ready to listen.
Bad storytellers don’t pay attention to the space they occupy. They don’t realize when they’ve said too much. They don’t sense when it’s time to be quiet.
Whenever I listen to a person who loves his own voice just a little bit too much, I think of this quote by Mark Twain:
“Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg crackles as if she has laid an astroid.”
What to do:
Ask questions but don’t listen to reply. Instead, listen to understand. You connect with others when they feel heard and valued.
Don’t bother about what other people think about you. Instead, use your energy to be the best listener in the room.
Whenever you’re in doubt whether you’re saying too much and listening too little, pause and be quiet.
4) They forget to create a cinema for the mind
An audience wants to connect visually, but bad storytellers don’t give any visual information. They get lost in abstractions and don’t act as a person who is physically moving through space.
The bigger the abstraction, the harder it is for an audience to connect. While sentences like ‘certainty is the enemy of growth’ and ‘how you do anything is how you do everything’ work on paper, they don’t work in stories.
People can’t identify with concepts. They’re not relatable, and in stories, they lead to boredom. Just like Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
What to do:
Matthew Dicks sums it up:
“The simplest stories about the smallest moments in our life are often the most compelling.”
Rather than focusing on the big concept and blurring the overall takeaway, aim for details and specificity.
And don’t get lost in the land of nothingness. Great stories are a cinema for the mind. They contain details that make a scene highly sensory—information about the setting, physical location, feelings, events.
A physical location in every scene helps your audience create a vivid picture in their mind.
5) They kill any surprises
Let me tell you about the time I felt outraged and almost left my startup. Wow. I killed any surprise. So do starter phrases like:
- “You won’t believe it.”
- “You can’t imagine what happened to me.”
- “Yesterday, I met the most interesting person ever.”
Stories live by unexpected twists. That’s what makes them interesting in the first place. But if you predict the outcome and raise the expectation bar, your story can only disappoint.
What to do:
Don’t start with a summary. There’s no need to give a disclaimer or summary. Start with the story.
The best place to start your story is by starting at the end’s opposite. Want to tell a story about regaining trust in humanity? Start with a scene when you had the least trust. Thereby, you reinforce the change that happened in you.
And if you need a thesis statement, put it at the end. Because surprise is what creates emotions. Again, Matthew Dicks, who makes his audience laugh hard before he makes them cry:
“You need to build surprise into your stories. There must be moments of unexpectedness so that your audience can experience an emotional response to your story.”
6) They repeat what has been said before
Bad storytellers are often unoriginal. Margarete Stokowski gives a perfect example: It’s like shouting through a megaphone: “We all have to think for ourselves!” And a crowd of a thousand people repeats: “We all have to think for ourselves!”
It’s the tenth article about Elon Musk’s first-order thinking. It’s people who quote Kant’s “Have the courage to use your own reason,” and then happily continue giving more and more quotes.
Bad storytellers repeat what has been said a thousand times. They cling to stories and beliefs that aren’t contradictory or bear any controversy.
What to do:
Take a stance and a statement. Support a thesis. It’s easier to not have an opinion than it is to have one. Don’t be the one who doesn’t have one. Be the one who does.
Use other people’s ideas as a stepping stone. Copy thoughts, but then add a twist and make them about your view of the world. Use your experiences to create a unique story out of them.
If a friend went through a story you would love to share, tell your story’s angle. Don’t ever copy something just because you feel people will like it.
“Be quoatable. Your job is not to recycle but to create something new.”
— Matthew Dicks
All You Need to Know
Great storytellers aren’t born that way. They become great by following these rules:
- Don’t give time-stamp listicles of events and facts. Instead, build your story around one emotionally transforming moment.
- Don’t make any story about your best self. Show vulnerability and imperfection. Talk about the lessons you learned along the way.
- Don’t take too much space. Allow others to take the stage and listen carefully.
- Don’t get lost in abstractions. Be as specific as you can, include physical locations, and create a cinematic mind experience.
- Don’t take away the surprise. If you need a thesis statement, use it in the end, not in the beginning.
- Don’t repeat what has been said before. Dare to be original.
In the end, people don’t make decisions based on numbers or facts — it’s stories that make all the difference. No matter where you are in life, storytelling can help you achieve your goals.