Social Life Coaching

Here’s Why Your Stories Are Boring (AND How To Make Them Captivating)

Do people stare at you open-mouthed when you tell a story? Or do their eyes wander in search of something more interesting?

The good news is it’s not you that’s boring. It’s just the way you tell your stories.

This article will tell the same story in two different ways, to show you how to make people doze off and how to keep people engaged.

The Story, Version 1: How To Keep People Engaged

I thought I was going to get murdered once… while I was travelling around Europe with my parents.

I was hanging out with travellers from our tour group after my parents went to sleep. It was 2:30am in Innsbruck, in Austria, and we were starving.

There was only one place open where we could get some food – a gas station – but it was on the other side of the highway with a high fence dividing the roads.

Our tour guide had warned us that it wasn’t safe to go out at night but I’d been doing it every night anyway with two other guys. The 3 girls in our group usually listened to the warnings and stayed at the hotel, but this one time they decided to come with us.

We couldn’t find an opening in the highway fence so we had to jump over it.

We kept walking, then noticed two figures coming toward us out of nowhere… as if they’d been waiting for us to get close.

It was dark and there was no one else around. The girls freaked out instantly.

We only had a few seconds to talk about what the f*** to do. We knew we couldn’t run, we were too far from the hotel, so we decided to keep walking cautiously.

Us boys manned up, but I knew the other two were as sh*t scared as I was.

So these two tall, bruiser-looking men stopped in front of us. One of them stepped forward and said…

“I’m sorry but do you speak English?”

The adrenaline rush I had made me respond “NO” without a second thought.

I still remember the look he gave me. His face said “How the f*** did you understand what I said then?!”

*Facepalm*

So we kept walking and all had good laugh over it.

We got the gas station, had a quick bite and started heading back to the hotel. Then I heard a bike getting closer and sensed trouble.

Two men were riding a black dirt bike, wearing all black, with black helmets. They looked exactly like the thugs who chase the good guy in every hollywood action sequence.

They sped past us and yelled something in German.

I shat my pants in front of everyone.

Okay… not literally.

But a minute later we see them on the other side of the road, and they’re staring at us. They give us a nod.

Oh my god. That nod sent chills down my spine. We got lucky once, but we’re definitely getting robbed this time.

We couldn’t run because the girls couldn’t jump the fence as easily as we could. The guy inside the store was too old to help. We didn’t even have a cellphone to call for help.

I knew they were coming for us.

Then a minivan arrived to refuel.

I ran to the driver and told him the two guys were chasing us.

He couldn’t comprehend a word I said. He just kept repeating “This is not a taxi, this is not a taxi.”

It was only after the girls pleaded him to take us that he agreed. And I believe we broke the world record for the least time taken to pile 6 people into a minivan.

We were so panicked that we started to suspect that our driver would rob us too, but he took us to the hotel, safe and sound.

Couldn’t have thanked him enough. We offered him money but he refused.

It felt like God was looking out for me or something. But we decided not to go out again at night after that, just in case.

A confession

That story didn’t actually happen to me. It was sent to me for editing by Aman, a fellow Beard Stroker, in response to my storytelling email a few weeks ago. Though I have been to Innsbruck too and I’m pretty sure I remember the gas station he’s talking about ;)

The above is my version. I edited Aman’s version to make it more engaging and to show you the kind of things that can kill a great story.

Here’s Aman’s version.

The Story, Version 2: How To Make People Doze Off

So here’s a life incident that I’m sure to remember all my life.

This is from 2012, when I went on a Europe tour with my parents booked through a travel agent. We were accompanied by 6 other families.

We were visiting 11 countries. After France, Switzerland and Lichtenstein it was Austria (Innsbruck).

None of the previous places had a late night eatery or convenience store nearby our hotel but Innsbruck did. Finally. A convenience store on a gas station. But it was on the other side of a highway which had a high fence dividing the roads. We couldn’t go all the way looking for an opening so we jump crossed it.

Every night our tour guide warned us of going out late as it was not safe but me and my newly befriended fellow travelers went out every single night. Girls didn’t join for the same reason but this time we had a convenience store nearby so they insisted on coming along.

At 2:30 am all six of us (3 boys 3 girls) went out on foot.

Here starts the fun part.

Preliminary freakout:

On our way, we saw 2 tall bruiser looking men appearing out of nowhere coming towards us. As if they were waiting for us to come close enough.

The girls freaked out instantly.

It was dark, no one else around and we were clearly in their sight.

After a quick discussion, we knew we couldn’t run, we were far enough from our hotel, decided to proceed cautiously. Us boys manned up, but inside I knew the other two were sh*t scared as much as me.

They stopped close to us and one of them stepped forward:

“I’m sorry but do you speak English?”

The adrenaline rush I had made me respond “NO” without a second thought.

The look he gave me after that.
How the f*** did you understand this then.

Facepalm
All of us had good laugh over it.

The main moment:

After grabbing a quick bite at that convenience store just as were were about to go back, I heard a bike drawing closer.

Call it bad luck, they were 2 men riding a black dirt bike, wearing all black clothes, black helmets, looked exactly like those motorcycle thugs who chase the good guy in every hollywood action sequence.

They sped past us hollering.

This frightened us all.

A minute later, we see them on the other side of the road and this time both of them gave us a nod.
Omg. This spent chills down my spine.I can’t be lucky twice i thought this time they’re surely robbing us.

We were in trouble.
We couldn’t run, we had girls with us who couldn’t jump the fence like we did.
The guy inside the store was too old to combat them, couldn’t help.

We didn’t even have a cellphone to call for help.

They were coming for us. I knew they were.

Suddenly we noticed a minivan had arrived to refill. Oh it was god sent.

I approached him, explained to him how two guys were chasing us. But this guy couldn’t comprehend a word I said and kept on repeating “This is not a taxi, this is not a taxi.”
It was only after the girls pleaded him, he agreed.

I believe we made a world record that day of the least time taken by 6 people to get into a minivan.

Midway we even got skeptical of the driver, we were that panicky.

But, we reached our hotel. All safe and sound. Couldn’t have thanked him enough. We offered him money but he refused. God sent, you see.

Why Your Stories Are Boring

So I exaggerated a little about the dozing off, because the dramatic part of Aman’s version is pretty captivating. I only changed a bit of his wording to improve clarity.

The biggest problem with his version is the introduction. It took too long to set the scene, with too many unimportant details that cause the listener to lose interest before you get to the good bit.

If your stories tend to make people’s eyes glaze over, there’s a good chance you’re doing this same thing.

If you want to capture attention, the goal of each line should be to make the audience want to hear the next line. To achieve that you have to paint a picture with emotions rather than facts or details.

Include details only if they improve clarity, create vivid imagery or trigger emotions. If they don’t, cut them out. Keep your story tight and avoid going off on tangents. Tangents confuse people and make your story difficult to follow.

The basic structure of a story should look something like this:

  • Get their attention: open the main problem loop.
  • Set the scene quickly: Who, what, where.
  • Open smaller problem loops.
  • Build tension within each problem loop by adding details that trigger emotions.
  • Release tension by gradually closing problem loops.
  • Summarise the point of the story, or lessons learned (optional).

Here’s my version again. With commentary this time to explain what I’m talking about above.

Storytelling Psychology: How To Captivate People

I thought I was going to get murdered once… while I was travelling around Europe with my parents.

This first line gets their attention by opening a problem loop: “How on earth did you almost get murdered while travelling with your parents?”

The statement is surprising, so their mind starts visualising possibilities and they need you to close the loop for them.

The story is over when you close this main loop. But instead of closing it right away you’ll open other smaller loops to hold their attention. You’ll take them on an emotional rollercoaster.

Aman’s intro (“an incident that I’m sure to remember”) doesn’t create any immediate questions in their mind and therefore isn’t enough to hold their attention.

I was hanging out with travellers from our tour group after my parents went to sleep. It was 2:30am in Innsbruck, in Austria, and we were starving.

That’s all you need to set the scene: a quick “who, what, where”. Sometimes “when”. If you add too many unimportant details, people will drift off.

The “what” (we were starving) opens a new problem loop within the main problem loop. Now they have 2 problems that need resolving: “not getting murdered” and “getting food”.

There was only one place open where we could get some food – a gas station – but it was on the other side of the highway with a high fence dividing the roads.

Building tension within the “we were starving” problem loop: “High fence” adds imagery and a sense of difficulty.

Our tour guide had warned us that it wasn’t safe to go out at night but I’d been doing it every night anyway with two other guys. The 3 girls in our group usually listened to the warnings and stayed at the hotel, but this one time they decided to come with us.

Building tension: “Wasn’t safe to go out at night” and “This one time the girls decided to come” create a feeling that something might happen THIS time.

We couldn’t find an opening in the highway fence so we had to jump over it.

Building tension: Slight element of danger.

We kept walking, then noticed two figures coming toward us out of nowhere… as if they’d been waiting for us to get close.

Calling them figures instead of men opens a new problem loop that holds the audience’s attention: “What are the figures?”

It was dark and there was no one else around. The girls freaked out instantly.

Building tension: paints a picture and adds fear.

We only had a few seconds to talk about what the f*** to do. We knew we couldn’t run, we were too far from the hotel, so we decided to keep walking cautiously.

Us boys manned up, but I knew the other two were as sh*t scared as I was.

Building tension: adds a sense of panic and anticipation.

So these two tall, bruiser-looking men stopped in front of us. One of them stepped forward and said…

“I’m sorry but do you speak English?”

The adrenaline rush I had made me respond “NO” without a second thought.

I still remember the look he gave me. His face said “How the f*** did you understand what I said then?!”

*Facepalm*

So we kept walking and all had good laugh over it.

Releasing some tension by closing the “what are the figures?” loop.

We got the gas station, had a quick bite and started heading back to the hotel. Then I heard a bike getting closer and sensed trouble.

Two men were riding a black dirt bike, wearing all black, with black helmets. They looked exactly like the thugs who chase the good guy in every hollywood action sequence.

Releasing more tension by closing the “we were starving” loop.

Only the main loop (almost got murdered) remains open.

They sped past us and yelled something in German.

I shat my pants in front of everyone.

Okay, not literally.

Comedy in a tense situation releases tension. It also shows you whether the audience are listening or not… if they laugh.

You’ve released most of the tension at this point, so next you build it back up…

But a minute later we see them on the other side of the road, and they’re staring at us. They give us a nod.

Building tension: Talking in the present tense pulls people in. It’s like it’s happening right now.

Oh my god. That nod sent chills down my spine. We got lucky once, but we’re definitely getting robbed this time.

Opening a new loop: “Will we get robbed?”

We couldn’t run because the girls couldn’t jump the fence as easily as we could. The guy inside the store was too old to help. We didn’t even have a cellphone to call for help.

I knew they were coming for us.

Building tension: No way out.

Then a minivan arrived to refuel.

Opening a new loop: “What happens with the minivan?”

I ran to the driver and told him the two guys were chasing us.

He couldn’t comprehend a word I said. He just kept repeating “This is not a taxi, this is not a taxi.”

Building tension: He’s not going to help. The guys are coming.

It was only after the girls pleaded him to take us that he agreed. And I believe we broke the world record for the least time taken to pile 6 people into a minivan.

We were so panicked that we started to suspect that our driver would rob us too, but he took us to the hotel, safe and sound.

Couldn’t have thanked him enough. We offered him money but he refused.

Releasing all tension by closing the remaining 3 loops: “what happens with the minivan?”, “will we get robbed?” and “almost got murdered”.

It felt like God was looking out for me or something. But we decided not to go out again at night after that, just in case.

Lesson learned. Closure.

Build Your Storytelling Repertoire

Now that you know how to tell a captivating story, go write one about something interesting that has happened in your life. Then tell that story the next time a related topic comes up in conversation.

Watch the listener as you tell your story. Which parts do they react to emotionally? Which parts fall flat?

Keep the good bits and change the boring bits, then tell your story to someone else until it’s so good that people can’t not listen to it.

Pete - Social Coach For Intelligent Men

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