The whole reason to tell a story isn’t to hear yourself speak. It’s to create a connection between you and the listener. That’s the magic of great storytelling. And like any kind of rapport-building exercise, there’s one simple rule in play: high risk, high reward; low risk, low reward.
Basically, the higher the level of self-disclosure in the story, the deeper the connection you’re going to make with your listeners. But there’s also the risk that you might expose too much and embarrass yourself. Alternately, you might come across too strong and alienate or even offend your listeners. Becoming a good storyteller is about mastering that trade-off over time.
Ultimately, that’s a calculated risk you’re going to have to make when you tell a personal story. But I’ve broken it down into three basic levels to help you get a feel for what you’re getting yourself into:
- Light disclosure involves amusing anecdotes about yourself and the world around you. Light disclosure tends to be brief, with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. This tends to be a quick little anecdote about something funny or interesting that happened to you in the course of your daily life.
- Medium disclosure gets more serious, because it involves your beliefs, opinions and ideas about the world. This is a riskier proposition, because there’s someone out there who’s bound to be affected by your thoughts and feelings. Medium disclosure is best for after you have established some degree of rapport with your listeners. You need to feel reasonably safe that, even if they don’t agree, that they won’t be looking for the nearest exit.
- Heavy disclosure is, as you might guess, the riskiest and most difficult kind of storytelling. This is where you begin sharing your fears, insecurities, failures and pain points with your listeners. There’s a two-fold risk with heavy disclosure. First, you might come across as needy or validation-seeking. Second, your listeners might laugh at you rather than with you. You want to save heavy disclosure for situations where you feel very safe sharing deeply personal and painful parts of your life. You also want your storytelling ability to match the level of disclosure, which is a matter of practice.
For the most part, when you’re out at a bar, business networking event or other place where you’re meeting new people, you’ll want to stick mostly to light self-disclosure with maybe a little bit of medium self-disclosure once you’ve started to make a connection. Heavy self-disclosure is either for people you already know very well, or people that you want to become trusted confidants and companions.
Rapport is ultimately what you want to achieve when you tell a story, so don’t gloss over thinking over this part. One of the most powerful reasons to tell a story is that it allows you to connect with several people all at once. Just how much do you want to connect? A good storyteller is aware of his level of disclosure and uses it skillfully.