Friday, January 8, 2010

What to Say (Conversational Skills, Part 6)

Last time I wrote about the questions you need to be prepared to answer in a social situation, Today, I’m writing about how to tell an anecdote.

Think of the people you know who tell really good stories at parties. What about the way s/he tells the story makes it interesting? Make a study of those people and learn from them. In the meantime, here are a couple of tips:

Exaggerate. But don’t indulge in hyperbole. The story will come off as if a ten year old were telling it if you use hyperbole. Make the exaggeration realistic, like it could have happened that way even if it didn’t.

Feel, Don’t Think, Before You Talk. I know you’ve probably been told all your life to think before you speak. After all, you don’t want to sound foolish, or, God forbid, be wrong. This censoring of yourself is why you think you have nothing to say or that you aren’t clever enough to come up with a spontaneous comment. You do have something to say. You’re just dismissing it. So feel, don’t think, and say it. If you censor yourself by thinking about what you’re going to say, you kill the emotion. Passion, excitement and fear are all good emotions to feed off of in telling a good anecdote. If you don’t feel anything while you’re telling it, neither will anyone else. But don’t use anger. People want to laugh at anecdotes or get caught up in the fear or excitement of the story. They do not want to be made angry. And you do not want women to think of you as an angry, negative, complaining person. Telling tales of frustration or embarrassment is fine as long as they come off as funny (see exaggeration above). If you aren’t funny (be honest), or just have a hard time being funny in certain social settings, don’t tell those kinds of anecdotes. Stick to the scary or exciting ones.

Tell the Story in the Right Order. Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to backtrack and explain something or add an event that happened earlier that you now realize you need to tell in order for your story to make sense. It’s like flashbacks in movies. It kills the forward momentum. So before you tell an anecdote, briefly go over the chronology in your head before you start talking. (Okay, so I’m contradicting myself about the not-thinking-before-you-talk rule.)

What do you do if you have trouble coming up with anecdotes? Where do people come up with ideas for anecdotes? From their own lives mostly. You have one of those, don’t you? Start keeping a journal or a blog, if you don’t already, and use it to tell funny and interesting stories from your week. Craft it as you would a fictional story. Decide what emotion you want to elicit and hook the reader.
Writing down your life will help you think of your own life in story terms, and you will begin to notice anecdotes all around you. Right now, think about finding a dime on the street. Think very hard about it. You know the old trick. Now that you’ve thought about it, you’ll start seeing dimes everywhere. It’s the same with anecdotes.

In your pursuit of anecdotes, you may find yourself doing stupid things just to have a story to tell.

I encourage that.

Exercise: Write down a story from your life of the past week. Is the topic something out of the norm or, if it’s about an everyday sort of occurrence, can you tell it in a funny way? What emotion do you feel as you record it? What kind of emotion does the story bring out in the reader?

Next time: How to Change the Topic of Conversation

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