Three Principles of Personal Storytelling
Scott Harrison was sitting in an inn in Ethiopia, with a few people, when the innkeeper walked in and started telling them a story, unprompted.
The innkeeper lived in a small remote village, where all women used to walk for eight hours a day to get water for their daily needs. The women would carry heavy clay pots on their backs. One day on the way back, a woman slips and falls. The clay pot breaks. All the water is spilled on the ground.
At this point, the innkeeper took a pause making sure they were listening. Then he said, “We found her body swinging from the tree in the village.”
They all stared at him. Stunned.
“The work you are doing is important; keep it up,” he said and disappeared back in the kitchen.
Scott Harrison is the founder of a charity called Water. He has raised over 100 million dollars by telling stories like that.
When I heard Scott telling this story in a YouTube video, I was stunned too.
Not only because the story was powerful but the way it was told.
There are 663 million people in this world who live without clean water. Scott has been telling the stories of these people. He has discovered three essential principles of telling engaging stories in any environment.
Principle # 1: Take the listener on the emotional journey.
While telling the above story, Scott sets the scene by describing how the innkeeper walks in on him and his friends and tells them the story, uninvited. That itself is intriguing.
Scott then mentions the innkeeper’s pause, so that we can get his attention just like the innkeeper waited for his. We wait and hence absorb more what the orator is going to say after the pause.
While telling a personal story, the temptation is to jump ahead and say what you learned as quickly as possible. Do not do that.
If you slow down, you take people on the same winding journey you went on, and the story connects much more.
As Scott continued, he talked about his emotional response. He doubted the truth of this story just as we might.
I remember we said “What!” It felt as we were hit by a ton of bricks. And then we starting doubting it. Is that story really true? Can we tell this to the international donors? But I just couldn’t shake the idea or the picture of a woman that slipped and fallen, like all of us have done, and was in such despair on her living conditions that she tied a rope around her neck climbed a tree and jumped.
So I sent one of my partners to the village to find out if anyone by that name of Latticur lived in the village and whether what happened to her was true. A couple of weeks later I got an email from him saying, yes the story was true. He saw her grave. He met her family.
Then I asked my wife, I want to go there and live there for a week.
Principle # 2: Every story needs a near-constant element of mystery to keep the listener engaged.
You need to continually raise questions in the listeners’ minds if you want to keep their attention. Every time you answer one, you need to plant a new one.
Scott hints at a bit of mystery right at the beginning of the story by asking whether the story is true. When he finds out that it is, he immediately raises another question — what happens when he goes to Ethiopia himself?
So I went to the village, I lived there for a week. I met the priest who gave her the funeral. I saw the pile of rocks behind the church that was her grave, I met her mom, I met her friend who was with her that day. I went on writing about it on Medium about the experience and seeing the tree.
It is a frail tree. And I didn’t know until I went to the village that she was thirteen.
That was a huge shock for me. I was expecting an old lady. This hunched back mature woman who has walked water all her life.
She was thirteen years old girl. A teenager.
I remember asking her friend, through translator, why she thought she hanged herself. Her best friend said, she would have been overcome with shame because she had broken the clay pot and she spilled the water.
So that is the story's main action, but it doesn’t end here because there is a third principle.
Principle # 3: Like Aesop’s fable, the best stories have a lesson in the end.
It doesn’t have to be explicit, but it needs to be there like an overarching point. When you get to this point, you need to know your purpose in sharing the story.
What is the audience supposed to take away from your story?
Here is what Scott thinks about what we should learn from the Innkeepers’ story.
This is an emergency. Something has to be done where thirteen-years-old are not hanging themselves on trees for breaking clay pots and spilling water.
I found this story while researching storytelling for my book. The three principles of storytelling I learned from it were powerful. But what was more powerful was the lesson of the story.
It has inspired me to tell the stories of people like Latticur, who have no voice. People like George Floyd, whose life has been cut short by racism, a plague more dangerous and widespread than the coronavirus.