Wondering How to Tell a Story? Always Make the Meaning Clear

Posted By on June 6, 2013

how to tell a story mystical cow

When you learn how to tell a story, particularly aloud, you have to make the meaning clear so the audience understands why you’re telling it. Photo copyright 2013 Cynthia Hartwig


Lulu Miller, a writer/producer for Radio Lab, gave some of the best advice on how to tell a story that I’ve ever heard. Lulu said,

“If you’re telling a story aloud, you have to make the meaning explicit.”

Weirdness Does Not Equate with Story.

The world is a strange place. Why else would villages be swallowed up by earthquakes or tornadoes in Oklahoma hurl cows into the sky?

A cow that falls out of the sky is memorable, sure, but it’s a random event. And random events happen all the time in a world that seems more terrifying every day. If lightning strikes a golfer or someone drowns in a bathtub, an audience looks to the storyteller to translate not just how something happened but why and wherefore.

Think About How to Tell a Story and Write Out What you Think it Means.

Say our cow falls from the clouds and crushes a murderer. Now you’ve got the beginnings of a story about divine retribution. If our brindled cow crushes the one-armed man who just pulled a child from a burning building, narrowly missing the murderer, the story could be about the ubiquity of evil. Or maybe you are a scientist and what you really want to do is tell a story about the weather conditions that make tornadoes become killers due to global warning.

My point is that the “inciting” event—our poor falling cow—needs you to rescue it by explaining what it means. If you just tell what happens, you’ve only got an anecdote.

Humans Need Meaning in a Random World.

For thousands of years, stories have been told to teach us which fruits to eat and mushrooms to stay away from; they proscribe how to behave to others (think Aesop’s fables and the parables of the Bible); stories entertain and make us shiver or sob or vow to do better.

If I tell you I saw a naked man walking down a busy Seattle street (true story), everybody immediately wants to know why. If I was going to use this event in a presentation, then my job is only half done. I would have to track down Mr. Nakie and ask why he shucked his shorts, where he was going au natural, and why.

Meaning is Even More Critical When You’re Telling a Story Aloud.

The ear needs more help than the eye in taking in meaning. If you’re reading a story on the page, you can easily go back and reread the paragraph if you missed something. Not so when you’re hearing a story at a business meeting, or listening to a podcast or radio show.

For a great example of how to tell a story beautifully, listen to Elizabeth Gilbert tell you about the worst wedding toast she ever heard. Lulu Miller and other writer/producers at This American Life produced this classic some years ago.

Happy listening.


Cynthia Hartwig

PS If you can tell me when and how many times the meaning of the wacky wedding toast is explained, I’ll send you a Word Czar hat.