Storytelling isn't just an essential skill for Hollywood screenwriters and marketers. Anyone who wants to win trust, sell ideas, make friends, or intrigue a date can benefit from knowing how to spin a captivating tale.
That means storytelling is an essential skill for everyone, really.
Yet most of the advice out there involves complex structures that are best suited for professionals carefully thinking out stories well in advance. They're super useful, but they won't help you much if you're staring across an interview table or a bar hoping to impress with an off-the-cuff recollection.
What you need for these occasions are dead-simple rules of thumb that can transform a ho-hum anecdote into a truly memorable story. Storytelling coach Andy Raskin offered a great one on the Mission recently. And, helpfully, he gave it a hard-to-forget name -- "the Stinky Cow Principle."
What does a stinky cow have to do with storytelling?
Where did this memorable term come from? In a workshop one day, Raskin asked a student to describe a career transition. The man rattled off a perfectly coherent but bland statement about how he decided his old industry (in his case, film production) wasn't the best fit for him.
Responses like that inevitably go in one ear and out the other, so Raskin pushed harder, challenging the student to recall the specific moment he decided to leave the business. The story that emerged is unforgettable. The student told the workshop:
I'll tell you exactly when it was. I was working on a shoot for the Discovery Channel, and part of the set was this carcass of a dead cow. It smelled to high heaven. I was a lowly production assistant, so after the filming was over, it was my job to ride in a van with this stinky, rotting mass of flesh. Wasps filled the air, and I could barely breathe. That's when I said to myself, "Maybe this is not going to work out."
Putting the Stinky Cow Principle to use
What can entrepreneurs and professionals learn from this, beyond the little-known challenges of low-level film production gigs? Raskin explains that the memorable details about the half-rotted carcass not only made the story more entertaining, they also made the person who told it seem more trustworthy, creative, and likable.
You, too, can use this level of detail to improve your storytelling. Whenever you're asked to talk about a turning point -- the moment the main character of your story decides to take action, or what screenwriters refer to as "the inciting incident" -- remember Raskin's Stinky Cow Principle and paint a picture rather than just offer a summary.
"The big change that I got [the student] to make was telling his inciting incident as a scene (' ... this stinky, rotting mass of flesh ... I could barely breathe ... ') rather than as summary ('not working out'). The details, sights, and smells put us right there with him in the van, forcing us to imagine ourselves facing the same decision he did," explains Raskin.
"Stories connect better with audiences when you convey your inciting incident as a scene--especially when it involves suffering, failure, disillusionment, or struggle," he says.
So the next time you're kicking off a story about how you made a change, began a new adventure, or overcame a challenge, don't just offer a general description of the situation you were confronting. Remember that poor production assistant locked in a van with a dead cow, and instead go deep into the sensory details of exactly how you felt the moment you realized you had reached a turning point.
If you do, "everyone you talk to will feel more connected to the people in your stories -- and to you," Raskin insists.