Story Starters: Why I Love Good Exposition (and So Should You!)

Posted by Bridget Beirne
December 5, 2014

by Bridget Beirne


bridget-beirne-1I love this time of year. Regardless of your background, what you believe or celebrate, story starters are everywhere — the stories just flow. Whether it dates back to ancient humans'  inclinations to huddle out of the cold around a warm fire and commune with others, or it's just my personal urge to curl up and share experiences, I'm always entranced by the plethora of stories as the year winds down.

The best storytellers I know always have a natural sense of exposition. They set the stage of their story, tell you the who, what, where, when, and why, in a way that pulls you in, and makes you lean a little closer to their tale. Not only do they paint the backdrop of where the story will take place, but they plant a few seeds to get you hooked. But it's more than just an outline of cold, hard facts; these tellers focus on the turn of an unusual detail, an attention grabber that sets your ear to listening, an image that gets burned into your mind. 

My partner is renowned for his storytelling. Seriously — on numerous occasions, friends of ours have requested, by name, tellings of certain stories for which he is known. One particular story, which centers around his adventures working in a certain restaurant in New York, inevitably starts with his description of two men sitting at the bar. From there, he launches in to a raucous tale about an evening that descended into mad-cap chaos. And from the word "go," the room is hooked

As an actor, not only do we tell stories on stage, but we often sit around until all-hours sharing tales of this performance, or that road trip, or one specific disastrous evening trodding the boards. And it never fails, but the best ones pull you in right from the top. When telling a story in business, you need to grab your listeners right away. Your storytelling needs to be bold, specific, and intriguing if you want to take your audience on a journey from the first word.

I can still remember being blown away by a client who began her business story with a few simple sentences describing the school uniform she was wearing on her first day of boarding school; the fact that, years later, her use of the phrase "crisp, white shirt" still sticks in my mind is a testament to how effective she was with exposition.

Want to hook the ear of your listeners right away? Here are some tips for truly exciting story-ideasexposition that will make your business story shine:

1. No need to ask permission: The most powerful storytellers rarely start with the phrase, "Let me tell you a story," or "I'd like to tell you a story." They just start telling a story. When you cushion your story this way, it is like you are asking permission from your audience to tell it. The feeling behind that phrase is clear — it can be scary to just jump in to your telling! But to truly draw them in, go right for the story: "The two guys at the end of the bar had been sitting there all evening, and they showed no signs of leaving." 

2. But you CAN start with a question, or a personal statement: When you start your story with a question, you make your audience scan their own memories and relate their experiences to YOU and your message. "Do you remember how December 1st felt as a kid?" "Have you had as many frustrating experiences with this program as I have?" Personal statements of opinions or memories are also a strong start: "I remember the sheer joy I felt the first time I said a line on stage. I was about 8 years old, in a Holiday play." "I have personally chewed through 14 pencils while dealing with this program, but there was one time that was the worst." Before your audience knows it, they've been sucked into your story.

3. Focus on a detail and put it under a microscope: Zero in on something that encapsulates the whole feel of your story. Like the rock star client I worked with years ago, put some specifics under a microscope to set the stage: "I couldn't believe the shiny red paint job on my first car, and the way it gleamed when I pulled it out of the school parking lot." You can tell a lot about who, what, when, where, and why with just a few specific details.

Like I said, undoubtedly lots of minds will turn to storytelling this time of year. Observe what others are saying; steal the way your uncle begins his reminiscences, how your boss begins the tale of your business's start-up, how your kids begin the tellings of their favorite day at school. Then, go out and hook people with your brilliant expositions, and watch the stories flow.


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