A key skill of conversational mastery is being able to tell a story in such a way that you engage the imagination of the listener. Some folks are mediocre at telling stories; still others are plain lousy at it. A main reason for this is that the stories they tell lack structure and perhaps ramble along so that we listeners have difficulty following the story-line and may miss the conclusion - if there is one.
I am blessed that I learned how to tell a story at my father's knee. He was a talented raconteur who used colorful descriptions and emphasis in his stories, sometimes adding dialects to further spice them up. Where my father learned this craft I don't know (his own father had died when he was three.) He had natural gifts such as a good ear for nuances of language, and he was a good observer of people. As a student of storytelling, he mainly underwent an "apprenticeship of observation."
A well-crafted story has a spine, a kind of template into which the details fit. First, a skeleton, then sufficient flesh added to complete the body. An incomplete story is like a piece of music with a chord unresolved so that listeners are left unsatisfied.
We all know that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and end. A more detailed structure is necessary, however, one that the members of StoryNet christened "the spine of the story." I include here the spine as described by Kat Koppett in her excellent book, "Training to Imagine."
Once upon a time . . .
Every day . . .
But one day . . .
Because of that . . .
Because of that . . . (Repeat as needed)
Until finally . . .
Ever since then . . .
(And the moral of the story is . . . optional)
That's it. A template that contains, as she says, "A platform, a change and consequences, and a resolution."
Not only speakers and preachers and trainers can benefit from using such a story spine, but so also conversationalists. When you listen to the best storytellers, you'll be able to sense the structure, probably a permutation of the above, as they tell each story. The content of stories will vary, but there will always be a need for a predictable structure. Humans since time began have been storytellers, and by now a need for story structure is probably hard-wired into our evolved brains.
Because the use of stories has become so important in the worlds of business and public speaking, many people sense a need to improve their skills. To improve you'll need:
good storytellers to observe
a clear story spine
colorful details (flesh)
plenty of practice, with feedback
perhaps even a professional coach
Women especially, who have until recently been denied the opportunity to be the center of attention that storytelling practice requires, may need some extra attention to their storytelling skills.
My son Aaron, now 24, often used to ask me when he was small, "Dad, please tell me another story about when you were a little kid." And so I would, describing a time when my dad took me fishing, or when I fell off the building and broke my clavicle, or when I sold firecrackers to students at my school and they lighted and tossed them out of the classroom windows. Aaron has long ago forgotten many of my abstract ramblings, but he still remembers many of these personal stories 20 years later.
Practice sketching out your stories in advance, then edit the details. Eventually you will find that the spine in your stories becomes a framework that you sense intuitively, and that will free you up to improvise the details in the moment.