Three principles of personal storytelling
Scott Harrison was sitting in the restaurant of an Ethiopian inn with a few people when the innkeeper walked in and started telling him the story of a woman who lived in his village, unprompted.
His was a small remote village, where all women used to walk for water for eight hours a day. They would carry heavy clay pots on their backs and one day, on the way back, this woman, Latticur slips and falls. The clay pot breaks and all the water is spilled on the ground.
At this point, the restaurant owner took a pause making sure they were listening. Then he said, we found her body swinging from the tree in the village. They all stared at him. Stunned. “The work you are doing is important, keep it up,” and he disappeared back in the kitchen.”
Scott Harrison is the founder of a charity called Water. He has been able to raise over 100 million dollars by telling stories like that of Latticur.
When I heard Scott telling this story in a YouTube video I was as stunned as Scott and his friends were when they first heard it from the innkeeper. Not only because the story is powerful but the way it is told.
There are 663 million people in this world who live without clean water. Scott has been telling the stories of these people, and in the process discovered three important principles of telling more engaging stories in any environment.
The first principle of storytelling is to take the listener on the emotional journey.
While telling the story Scott sets the scene describing how innkeeper walks in on him and his friends and starts telling them the story, uninvited.
He then mentions the innkeeper’s pause, so that we can get his attention just like the innkeeper waited for his. We get to absorb what he says just as he did when he heard the story for the first time.
The temptation while telling a personal story is to jump ahead and tell the listener what you learned as quickly as possible. Do not do that.
If you slow down you take people on the same winding journey you went on and the story connects much more.
As he continues he also talks about his emotional response, that he doubted the truth of this story just as we might.
I remember we said “What!” It felt as we were hit by a ton of bricks. And then we starting doubting it. Is that story really true? Can we tell this to the international donors? But I just couldn’t shake the idea or the picture of a woman that slipped and fallen, like all of us have done, and was in such despair on her living conditions that she tied a rope around her neck climbed a tree and jumped.
So I sent one of my partners to the village to find out if anyone by that name of Latticur lived in the village and whether what happened to her was true. A couple of weeks later I got an email from him saying, yes the story was true. He saw her grave. He met her family.
Then I asked my wife, I want to go there and live there for a week.
The second principle is that every story needs a near-constant element of mystery to keep the listener engaged.
You need to constantly raise questions in the listeners’ minds if you want to keep their attention. Every time you answer one, you need to plant a new one.
Scott hints on a bit of mystery right at the beginning of the story by asking whether the story is true. When he finds out that it is, he immediately raises another question – what happens when he goes to Ethiopia himself?
So I went to the village, I lived there for a week. I met the priest who gave her the funeral. I saw the pile of rocks behind the church that was her grave, I met her mom, I met her friend who was with her that day. I went on writing about it on Medium about the experience and seeing the tree.
It is a frail tree. And I didn’t know until I went to the village that she was thirteen.
That was a huge shock for me. I was expecting an old lady. This hunched back mature woman who has walked water all her life.
She was thirteen years old girl. A teenager.
I remember asking her friend, through translater, why she thought she hanged herself. Her best friend said, she would have been overcome with shame because she had broken the clay pot and she spilled the water.
So that is the main action of the story but it doesn’t end here because there is a third principle.
The third principle is that the best stories have a lesson in the end, like Aesop’s fable.
It doesn’t have to be explicit, but it needs to be there like an overarching point. When you get to this point you need to know your purpose of sharing the story.
What is the audience supposed to take away from your story?
Here is what Scott thinks what we should learn from Letticur’s story.
This is an emergency. Something has to be done where thirteen-years-old are not hanging themselves on trees for breaking clay pot and spilling water.
I found this story while researching storytelling for my book.
I learned three principles of storytelling and they are powerful but what is more powerful is the lesson of the story.
It has inspired me to tell the stories of people like Latticur who have no voice. People like George Floyd whose life has been cut short by racism, a plague more dangerous and widespread than the coronavirus.