What makes a great storyteller great? Oodles and oodles have been written on this topic. It’s a particularly hot topic in the world of content marketing, which, when I’m not obsessing about music or going to shows, is what I do for a living in the “real” world. Although content marketers look at a story from the viewpoint of a company, as opposed to the viewpoint of an individual, the questions are the still the same. How can storytellers connect with their audience? Why do some stories have an impact, whereas others fall flat? What are the best ways to engage people’s emotions through story? Storytelling can be approached from a number of angles, but no matter how you look at it, storytelling always boils down to this: a great storyteller is somebody who communicates a message in a way that’s both personal and personable. And to that end, Melissa Ferrick is a fantastic storyteller.
Before arriving at Melissa Ferrick’s show this past Sunday at World Café Live, I had no idea I’d be in for such a storytelling treat. I’m going to illustrate the two main parts of storytelling — being personal and being personable — by showing you how Melissa approaches storytelling at her live shows.
What does it mean to be personal in storytelling?
Being personal is all about the storyteller.
When storytellers get personal, they’re sharing details from their lives. But these details can’t be just any details. They have to be details that reveal who the storyteller is as a person. These details have to be intimate.
“Intimacy” doesn’t necessarily mean anything sexual, although it can. But really, giving somebody an intimate detail just means you’re showing another person that underneath your external shell is a living, breathing human being. A human being with a soul.
Here’s a quick example of what I mean:
- “I went to the store today.”
This is not an example of an intimate detail. Even though I’m sharing something with you from my private life, it doesn’t tell you anything about me. The detail I gave you is factual, objective, and offers no insight at all into my personality. Bor-ing.
- “I went to the store today, and even though I was in a huge rush, I helped the lady in front of me at the checkout line pick up the contents of her dropped purse.”
This is a better example of an intimate detail. It shows you that I’m willing to make a sacrifice (here, a minute or two of my time) in order to help out a stranger. My good Samaritan deed was by no means heroic, but nonetheless, you still probably found what I did to be faintly heart-warming.
Let’s take this one step further:
- “I went to the store today, and even though I was in a huge rush, I helped the lady in front of me at the checkout line pick up the contents of her dropped purse. I didn’t even swipe any of her things.”
In this example I’m offering you more insight to my personality — I’m giving you a glimpse of my sense-of-humor. Assuming you knew my last sentence was a joke, then you can see how I’ve opened up to you. I’ve shown you I’m a bit of a smartass.
Now for a much better example of being personal in storytelling, one that’s Melissa’s.
A few songs into the set, Melissa told us she was self-conscious because she was having a bad hair day. Her hair was, indeed, a little ruffled. But that might’ve been because she had just put her hand through her hair and ruffled it. Or maybe it was because she was already a few songs into the set, and performing underneath the hot stage lights would make anybody sweat, and having a sweaty head causes a person to have ruffled hair. But it’s not like anybody would’ve noticed Melissa’s hair if she never pointed it out. And even after she did point it out, it still wasn’t a big deal. (Seriously, her hair was fine. Look at my pics to see for yourself.)
However, Melissa’s admission of self-consciousness endeared her to us. Famous musicians get self-conscious? Really? Who whudda thunk? Too cute.
But just in case we were doubting Melissa’s admission of self-consciousness, she launched into a whole story about why her hair was the way it was.
You see, when Melissa was home in Boston, she told her mom she needed a haircut. Melissa’s mom told her to go this salon she knows, and while there, mention her mom’s name because then her mom will get a 25% discount the next time she gets her hair done.
Melissa said all of this while (lovingly) impersonating her mother: “Now, dahling, when yawh at the salawn, make shah to tell ’em I sent you. And while yawh theah, get some moah 25% discount coupons.”
Melissa’s Boston accent was spot-on and hilarious.
Melissa then confided to us she didn’t want to disappoint her mom, even though she was a little skeptical about going to a salon that accepts 25% discount coupons. Especially if the salon accepts 25% discount coupons when the cost of the haircut comes to a grand total of thirty dollars.
But, Melissa told us, in retrospect it was no wonder why the” haiah” cut was priced the way it was when her hair (allegedly) looked the way it did.
Melissa sharing an intimate moment of her personal life made the audience see Melissa as a person, not a famous musician. We felt like we were her friends, not her fans.
Which brings me to my second point.
What does it mean to be personable in storytelling?
Being personable is all about the audience.
It might not seem this way at first. It might seem as if being personable, just like being personal, is about the storyteller. After all, if someone is described as being personable, it means this person has a “pleasing personality” and is “likeable.” And since being likeable is a character trait, how can it be a trait that’s characteristic of the audience instead of the person it’s describing?
It’s because if you find somebody likeable, you don’t find them likeable because of anything that’s inherent about the other person; it’s because of what’s inherent in you. Your feelings. If you say, “I like so-and-so,” what you’re really saying is, “I like the way so-and-so makes me feel about myself.”
Think about this for a second.
Think about somebody, besides Melissa Ferrick, who you find likeable. Somebody you know from your everyday life. Try to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes this person so darn likeable.
It’s hard, isn’t it?
Whatever reason you give for liking somebody, it has to do with enjoying that person’s company. And if you enjoy somebody’s company, that’s the same thing as saying you enjoy the way that person makes you feel whenever he or she is around you.
So then the question becomes, which kind of people do you like to be around the most?
And the answer is simply we most like to be around those who are most like us. People we can relate to. In psychology, this is known as the similarity bias.
Salespeople regularly use this bias to their advantage. They manipulate people into buying things they might not otherwise buy by exaggerating or pretending to have things in common with the people they’re selling to.
Skilled storytellers use the similarity bias too. The only difference is that most storytellers don’t even realize when they’re doing it; it’s something that comes naturally. And unlike salespeople, they’re not trying to get anything out of you. They’re just trying to share something with you.
In Melissa’s case, it’s her music.
The third song into Melissa’s solo set was a new one named “Baltimore.” It was a song Melissa wrote just a couple days prior to the show.
Melissa had shared with us how she had finally met such a great, wonderful person. As she gushed about this wonderful person, it made the audience go, “Awwwwwe.” It’s hard not be happy for someone who’s happy.
But then Melissa revealed a conflict that had arisen in her relationship, which had given name to her song.
She and this person were about seven weeks into their relationship when Melissa had to go on tour. Melissa said to this person, “So… when I’m on the road, I can make out with other people, right? Like, if I’m in Baltimore and I want to make out with someone there, I can, right?”
Melissa’s partner responded, “Does that mean I get to make out with someone up here while you’re gone on tour?”
To which Melissa responded, “Hell no!”
Melissa’s self-deprecation over her hypocrisy was funny, and we all laughed. She told us, “If you and your significant other are physically separated from each other, and neither of you can hook up with anybody else, that means there will be ‘No Baltimore.'”
Then we “Awwwwed” for a second time when Melissa told us after writing the song “Baltimore,” her partner gave her another shot. (It must nice be nice being a musician, eh?)
But once again, Melissa made us feel like she was talking to her friends, not her fans.
And once again, it was because she shared something about her life that was not only intimate, but something that we can all relate to — in this case, an admission of guilt in a romantic relationship — that made us like her more.
Whereas being personal tells you something about the storyteller, a detail from that person’s life, being personable tells you something about you, whether or not you can relate to that detail.
A good storyteller makes it seem like these two things are the same, but they’re not.
A person can give you an intimate detail of their life without you relating to it. They’re telling you something you don’t care about and/or identify with. When you do relate to someone, it’s because that person is sharing something with you that’s both meaningful and familiar. At Melissa’s show, I really got the sense she wanted nothing more than to share her stories, not so she could talk about herself, but so the audience could relate to her life experiences.
And since stories are something others can relate to, and then reinterpret as their own, the skilled storyteller ends up giving people more than a story — she ends up giving people a gift.
I’ve listened to Melissa’s albums, and I like her music a lot. But it’s Melissa’s ability to tell a story that really blows me away. I say this not just as a lover of live music, but as somebody who is involved in storytelling for a living. So please, if you get the chance to go to one of Melissa Ferrick’s shows, do it. Not only will you find a talented storyteller, you’ll also find a new friend.