Emotion in Storytelling

Emotion in storytelling is key to character development and makes your stories compelling. Here’s a story about boredom. How does it make you feel?

I’d like to say I’m never bored.  But then sports have always bored me.  Especially cricket!  I’ve been to a football match twice.  The first was Aberdeen versus Hearts and the second was Coventry versus Sheffield Wednesday (my inherited team).  At the last, we sat at the Coventry end.  Fortunately it was a no score draw, because with goals I’d have been out of synch with those around me. 

To be honest, I wasn’t bored!  I thought I would be.  I’d seen football on TV and found in the grounds you see the context, the teams’ strategies played out.  I’m still not interested but I see why many people are not bored by football.

I love opera and one of my favourites is Rosenkavalier.  It’s an opera you need to know to appreciate, especially if it’s in German.  There’s little action and whilst character development is profound, I imagine the whole thing is incomprehensible to some.  I remember taking a potential girlfriend.  Afterwards, she was no longer a potential girlfriend, if she ever was before.

Emotion in Storytelling is Artificial

It’s not the same as real life.  With 10 minutes to account for over several years; you cut an enormous amount!  The storyteller constructs everything, including emotions.

Aim to evoke an emotional response in your audience.  You do this deliberately or inadvertently.  Decide the response you want or else lose control.  Emotional responses you usually don’t want include boredom, revulsion, anger (aimed at you). 

Whilst you normally aim to finish on a note of laughter, joy or hope; many times you touch less positive emotions like sadness, anger at some injustice, worry, frustration …

Emotion and the Audience

Focus upon what you want your audience to feel at each stage of your story, whether you tell a story from experience or a fictional story.

When marketing, you have another concern.  What is your call to action?  How do you want your audience to respond, what would you like them to do?  What emotional state is likely to encourage them to respond?  Perhaps you present a problem and your solution to it.  So, leave your audience in a hopeful state.  Someone ready to buy is likely to be hopeful this purchase will solve their problem.

Often your audience passes through several emotional states as you tell your story.  A common pattern is laughter followed by sadness.  If you begin with humour, you do two things.  You build audience confidence.  Many fear the storyteller who seems likely to break down during telling a heavy story.  If you use humour, it shows you in control of your emotions.  Laughter also conceals the true nature of the story.  When the sad part comes along, it has more impact for not being expected. 

The challenge for the business owner is once you get to the sad part, how do you bring hope into the story?  Returning to laughter may work but often doesn’t; a merry quip at the end is rarely appropriate.  Something serious happened and you must honour that.  Finding that keynote of hope or affirmation is key to bringing your story to an end that inspires potential customers.

Wounds and Scars

There are two common problems using emotion in storytelling.  Usually emotions are more intense where you tell a story from experience but maybe some traditional stories cause you to choke up if they resonate with your story.

It takes time for wounds to heal.  If you tell a story in public too soon, you may encounter two waves of negative emotion.  The first is overwhelm as you speak.  The problem is not so much a public display of emotion, as losing sight of your audience’s emotional response.  A public performance is not a good place to hunt down your inner demons.  Your audience will work out you are not in control and lose trust in you.  The second wave may be remorse after you have told your story.

Discern whether you are ready to tell the challenging story.  Maybe you need to wait a few years.  Maybe therapy would help or telling the story to a trusted friend.  There is no compulsion to ever tell the story.  If you want to tell stories, you have many more.  I have heard speakers allude to other stories and when I ask in private, reply they are not ready to tell them. 

When you’re ready to tell a difficult story, the chances are it is a story many need to hear, a story told from scars.  The events you tell of are still a part of you but now you focus on your audience and their needs.

Beware, you can over control emotion in storytelling.  You become inured to suffering and tell the story in a mechanical way.  It is OK to choke up as you speak.  What you feel now may not be anything like what you felt then but you need to show you feel something!

Boredom can be Interesting!

Obviously, you should not bore your audience.  Everyone knows boredom.  They remember as kids, at home while it rains or in school conjugating verbs.  When you describe boredom, you trigger memories. 

Where were you bored?  Can you describe the bus stop where bored teenagers gathered and hung out?  When were you bored?  Was it as a kid or teenager?  Have you been bored in adult life? 

Boredom is not always having nothing to do.  The story at the head of this post describes adult boredom.  Hopefully it shows boredom can entertain!

I could do more with that story but you can see its potential.  The only rule is, don’t bore your audience!  One way to entertain your audience with boredom is to use humour.  Humour has several roles in storytelling but maybe not what you would think.  Find out more next time.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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