How to be Captivating
Captivating is a pretty strong word, and as such, it’s probably something that we want to strive for in our interactions.
When we think of a captivating person, what kind of mental image comes to mind? If you were to choose a picture for a “captivating person” in a dictionary, what would the person be? What is this person expressing, how are they acting, and what are you watching them do?
More often than not, this person is going to look like they are on a stage or pulpit gesticulating grandly and expressively, with an emotion-filled face. And I would also bet that this person is in the middle of weaving an engrossing tale that captivates his or her audience. Indeed, if you think about it, it seems that only with storytelling can we mesmerize and charm others into hanging on to our every word.
Okay, that’s up for debate, but determining whether or not that is true is not the aim of this chapter. No one can deny that storytelling is an important element of memorable conversations and discussions that you want to have. The question is always how to capture this elusive skill and make it your own. Therefore, in this chapter, I want to present a few perspectives on how you can use storytelling in your everyday conversations and even small talk.
It’s helpful to first take the mystique away from the whole concept of storytelling. What is storytelling? It’s just telling someone about something that happened. That’s all. Of course, there are better and worse ways to do this, but at the core, storytelling is just talking about the past in a way that makes people pay attention. The first part we have no problem with—we’ve all described our pasts, and we all have great experiences worthy of being told—but the second part is typically the challenge. With that in mind, let’s see how we can get better at storytelling.
02:05 A Life of Stories
To get better at stories, we have to begin to recognize them in our daily lives. No, seriously. We don’t think of our lives as being very interesting on a day-to-day basis, but we do quite a bit more than we realize. It’s not that every day you are engaging in a massive protest that you can tell your kids about, or you were chased by a wiener dog down a dark alley whereupon a man dressed as a parrot saved you by tackling the dog. These stories are self-evident and don’t need any organization or special way of telling them to make an impact.
We have to draw from our daily lives, and believe me, there is plenty to draw from. It’s just a matter of seeing the mini-stories that are inherent in our everyday existence. What is the definition of a mini-story in this context?
“So what do you do?”
“I’m a marketing executive.”
Well, not that. That’s going to get a reply of "Oh, cool. I’m going to the bathroom now, goodbye.” Let’s try again.
“So what do you do?”
“I’m a marketing executive. I deal mostly with clients. Just last week we had a crazy client that threatened to send his bodyguards to our office! I definitely wish I dealt more with the creative side.”
There we go. This will probably garner a stronger response than wanting to escape to the bathroom, such as “Oh my God! Did he actually send them? TELL ME MORE.”
That’s a mini-story. It’s answering questions (or spontaneously sharing) briefly using the elements of a story—an action that occurs to a subject with some sort of conclusion. As you can see above, a brief mini-story will create exponentially more conversation and interest than any answer to the question, “What do you do?” All you needed was three sentences. Try reading it out loud—it takes less than ten seconds, and you’ve jam-packed it with enough information to be interesting to anyone.
What’s great about mini-stories is you can also create these before a conversation, so you can have compelling anecdotes at hand in response to very common and widespread questions. The main benefit to creating mini-stories ahead of time is to be able to avoid one-word answers that you may be accustomed to using. This can give a sense of confidence going in, because you’ve prepared for what will come.
When you break down the context surrounding a mini-story, they become much simpler. Shoot for three sentences that can answer some of the most common conversation topics that will arise.
1. Your occupation (if you have a job that is unusual or nebulous, make sure you have a layman’s description of your job that people can relate to)
2. Your week
3. Your upcoming weekend
4. Your hometown
5. Your hobbies and so on.
When you are using a mini-story to answer a question, make sure to first acknowledge the question that was asked. But then, realizing that you have something far more interesting to say, you can jump into the mini-story, which should be able to stand by itself.
“How was your weekend?”
“It was fine. I watched four Star Wars movies.”
“Okay, I’m going to go talk to someone else now.”
Let’s try again.
“How was your weekend?”
“It was fine, but did I tell you about what happened last Friday? A dog wearing a tuxedo walked into my office and he peed on everything.”
“Wait. Tell me more.”
Using mini-stories allows you to avoid the tired back of forth of “Good, how about you” you’ll find in everyday small talk. That’s the first step to being captivating.
It might help to reframe mini-stories this way: when people make small talk with you and ask any of the classic small-talk questions, they aren’t truly interested in the answers to those questions. They want to hear something interesting, so give it to them.
This is an important point to repeat: when we ask how someone’s weekend was, or what people’s travel plans are, we usually aren’t that interested in the literal answer. We’ve already talked about how you should disclose and divulge more about yourself in an effort to find more similarities, and now you can see another benefit of offering more.
Not only that, mini-stories are an inside view to the way you think and feel. They give clues to your mindset, personality, and emotional leanings. Learning about those aspects is the first step in allowing anyone to relate and feel connected to you, so it’s imperative that you learn how to take any question and expand it to your advantage. It will also encourage them to reciprocate.
Mini-stories also underscore the importance of providing more details, as mentioned in an earlier chapter, and avoiding one-word answers. Details offer a three-dimensional description of you and your life. That automatically makes people more interested and invested because they are already painting a mental picture in their minds and visualizing everything.
Details also give people more to connect to, think about, and attach themselves to. With more details, there is a substantially higher likelihood that people will find something funny, interesting, in common, poignant, curious, and worthy of comment in what you have to say.
Detail and specificity put people into a particular place and time. This allows them to imagine exactly what’s happening and start caring about it. Think about why it’s so easy to get sucked into a movie. We experience enormous sensory stimulation and almost can’t escape all of the visual and auditory detail, which is designed to make us invested. Detailed stories and conversations are inviting others to share a mental movie with you.
Beyond giving flavor to your conversation and storytelling, and giving the other person something to ask about, details are important because they elicit emotional engagement. Details remind people of their own lives and memories and make them feel more drawn to whatever is presenting them. Details can compel others to laugh, feel mad, feel sad, or feel surprise. They can control moods and emotions.
If you include details about specific songs that played during your high school dances, it’s likely that someone will have memories attached to those songs and become more emotionally interested in your story. Share details about all the figurative nooks and crannies, because that’s what makes you interesting on an emotional level.
09:24 The 1:1:1 Method
On the theme of simplifying storytelling, we’ve been talking about how we can use a mini-story in many ways. You may be wondering what the difference is between a mini story and a full-fledged story.
For our purposes, not much. It seems that many people like to complicate storytelling as if they were composing an impromptu Greek tragedy. Does there have to be an introduction, middle, struggle, then resolution? Does there need to be a hero, a conflict, and an emotional journey? Not necessarily. Those are specific ways of storytelling if you are Francis Ford Coppola (director of the Godfather series) or a standup comedian used to keeping crowds engaged.
But certainly these aren’t the easiest or most practical ways to think about storytelling.
My method of storytelling in conversation is to prioritize the discussion afterward. This means that the story itself doesn’t need to be that in-depth or long. It can and should contain specific details that people can relate to and latch on to, but it doesn’t need to have parts or stages. A full story can be mini by nature. That’s why it’s called the 1:1:1 method.
This method stands for a story that (1) has one action, (2) can be summed up in one sentence, and (3) evokes one primary emotion in the listener. You can see why they’re short and snappy. They also tend to ensure that you know your point before starting and have a very low chance of verbally wandering for minutes and alienating your listeners. This is the lowest input to the highest output ratio you can have for a story.
For a story to consist of one action means only one thing is happening. The story is about one occurrence, one event. It should be direct and straightforward. Anything else just confuses the point and makes you liable to ramble. Details are important to share, but probably not at the outset because the story’s impact will be lost or blunted.
A story should be able to be summed up in one sentence because, otherwise, you are trying to convey too much. It keeps you focused and straight to the point. This step actually takes practice, because you are forced to think about which aspects of the story matter and which don’t add anything to your action. It’s a skill to be able to distill your thoughts into one sentence and still be thorough—often, you won’t realize what you want to say unless you can do this.
Finally, a story should focus on one primary emotion to be evoked in the listener. And you should be able to name it! Keep in mind that evoking an emotion ensures that your story actually has a point, and it will color what details you carefully choose to emphasize that emotion. For our purposes here, there really aren’t that many emotions you might want to draw out in others from a story. You might have humor, shock, awe, envy, happiness, anger, or annoyance. Those are the majority of reasons we relate our experiences to others.
Keep in mind that this is just my method for conveying my experiences to others. My logic is that whether people hear two sentences about a dog attack or they hear ten sentences doesn’t change the impact of the story. Telling a story about your friend going to jail—well, he’s still in jail at the end of two or ten sentences. Likewise, if you tell a story about how you adopted a dog, the dog will still be lounging on your bed if you take ten seconds or two minutes to tell the story.
After you provide the premise, the conversation can move forward as a dialogue, your conversation partner can participate more fully, and we can then focus on the listener’s impact and reaction. Then you can let the inevitable questions flow, and you can slowly divulge the details after the context is set, and the initial impact is felt. So what does this so-called story sound like?
“I was attacked by a dog and I was so frightened I nearly wet my pants.” It’s one sentence, there is one action, and the bit about wetting the pants is to emphasize the fact that the emotion you want to convey is fear and shock.
You could include more detail about the dog and the circumstances, but chances are people are going to ask about that immediately, so let them guide what they want to hear about your story. It doesn’t hurt to directly name the emotion that you were experiencing. Invite them to participate! Very few people want to sit and listen to a monologue, most of which is told poorly and in a scattered manner. Therefore, keep the essentials but cut your story short, and let the conversation continue as a shared experience rather than you monopolizing the airspace. Here are another couple of easy examples:
“Last week, I had a job interview that went so poorly I had the interviewer laugh at me while I was leaving the office, it was so embarrassing.” One action, one emotion, in one sentence.
“When I first met Joshua, I spilled a bowl of baked beans all over his white pants and I think the entire room was watching while this happened.”
The 1:1:1 method can be summed up as starting a story as close to the end as possible. Most stories end before they get to the end, in terms of impact on the listener, their attention span, and the energy that you have to tell it. In other words, many stories tend to drone on because people try to adhere to complex rules or because they simply lose the plot and are trying to find it again through talking. Above all else, a long preamble is not necessary. What’s important is that people pay attention, care, and will react in some (preferably) emotional manner.