The Art of Storytelling

Posted by Phil Weber on December 8, 2016

This week I attended a workshop in San Francisco called The Art of Storytelling with McSweeney’s. The course description promised that I would learn “How to craft persuasive stories for a variety of business contexts” and “Applied exercises to make your storytelling skills stand out in business settings.” While the workshop was enjoyable and inspiring, there was nothing business-y about it; it was more about defying conventions and subverting expectations to create more interesting, entertaining stories.

For example, the instructors explained that most stories answer the basic questions who, what, when, where, and how: Who are the main characters? What happens to them? Where does the action occur, and when is the story told? How will you choose to tell the story? By playing with one or more of these parameters, you can tell an otherwise conventional story in a more interesting way. They cited several clever examples from McSweeney’s:

Here’s a (true) story I wrote on the flight home:

“She’s been in there a long time. I hope she’s OK!”

I sat motionless in the women’s restroom stall, hiding my shoes, desperately hoping that concerned woman wouldn’t ask me if I needed help.

Why was I in a women’s restroom?, you ask. Fair question.

I was 21 years old; my family was on a road trip from our home in Portland, Oregon to Northern California. We had stopped for breakfast at a Denny’s restaurant somewhere along Interstate 5. After breakfast, I had said, “Let me just use the restroom, and we can get back on the road.”

I went into the stall and closed the door. A few minutes later, I heard a woman come into the bathroom. I thought, This woman is in the men’s room; maybe I should say something. I decided not to; we couldn’t see each other, so no harm done.

A moment later, another woman entered the restroom. Wait, two women? Must be me. I figured I would just wait until the place was empty and make my escape.

Unfortunately, it was the morning rush hour: one woman after another came in to powder her nose. (At one point, my mother was in the stall next to me. I briefly considered alerting her to my presence. I ultimately decided against it; she’s a screamer.)

Aside: When I was four years old, my father took me to a baseball game at Dodger Stadium. He took me to the bathroom, and from the stall I said, “Daddy?”

“Yes, Philip?”

“I love you.”

All the burly dads in that restroom chuckled and said, “Aww, he loves his daddy. Isn’t that sweet.”

Back at Denny’s, my father went into the men’s restroom. There was someone in the stall, whom he naturally assumed was me. (As far as he knew, I only used men’s rooms.)

Later, when I told my father what had happened, he said, “You don’t know how close I came to saying, ‘Hey, you in there: I love you.’ It’s a good thing I didn’t; I would have had to say, ‘Sorry, the guy I love is in the ladies’ room.’”

Eventually, the ladies’ room cleared out and I was able to sneak out undetected. (No, I did not wash my hands.) To this day, over 30 years later, whenever I enter a public bathroom, I always check for a urinal.

During the workshop, I thought about other ways I could tell this story: How about a Denny’s PR piece about how they were at the forefront of the gender-less restroom movement? ☺

I had a good time and definitely learned some new ways to enliven my stories; I’ll have to think a bit about how to apply these techniques at work.


Posted by Phil Weber on December 8, 2016:

Another thing I enjoyed about the workshop was how they had us introduce ourselves: We stood in a circle; each person stated their name, where they worked, something unique to them that they had in their possession, and a medieval-style epithet appropriate to them (e.g., “Ted the Tall”).

When it was my turn, I explained that I was born with two thumbs on my right hand (true story: ask me to show you the photo!), and that I had half of it in my possession. (The other half is presumably in a jar on some doctor’s desk.) My epithet was “Phil the Freak”.

After we had all introduced ourselves, they brought out a ball. When the ball was tossed to you, you were to reintroduce your epithet, then call out someone else’s epithet and throw the ball to them.

I’m not usually a fan of “ice-breakers”, but this one was fun and helped us quickly get to know each other.

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