A lonely table

A few years ago I had to give a speech about Inkling, the company I co-founded, and what prediction markets were all about. I’ve given talks on stage before, and I practiced this one at home at least two dozen times.

There were other speakers and after our talks we were supposed to stand at these tables, off to the side at this networking event, and answer any follow-up questions people had.

I gave my speech to a hundred or so people and thought it went fine. Then, I went and stood at my table.

No one ever came over.

That sucked. It’s not a pleasant feeling, pouring yourself into something you care very much about, and no one shares any interest.

It didn’t seem like it was because I was generally poor at public speaking. In high-school I was in a public speaking club and even won awards at it. I’m a trained actor too. I’ve gotten some nice compliments from strangers coming up to me after a performance.

Why weren’t people interested in this? Why didn’t anyone come up after this talk to chat?

And there have been other talks and articles I’ve written that went very similar to this. I’ll spend a huge chunk of time writing about something I care about, and it’s crickets in my web traffic logs.

So how can I make what I’m writing or talking about more interesting?

As I examined this question, it’s become clear that the most interesting people tell better stories.

The most interesting entrepreneurs are good storytellers. The most interesting teachers are good storytellers. Have you seen Richard Feynman teach or speak? It’s story after story. Even people I’ve interviewed or hired had better stories in their cover letters or interviews.

So one thing I’ve been working on over the last 18 months is simply becoming a better storyteller. I’ve read a ton of books about storytelling. I’ve even been to a short class taught by Lea Thau, who was the Executive & Creative Director of the storytelling organization The Moth, and followed up with Lea to get even more book recommendations.

There’s one common thread that comes up over and over again, and I think Kurt Vonnegut teaches it best:

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger.

Kurt Vonnegut, The Paris Review

Start with a plot. Start with a conflict. Share something troubling or challenging or painful and tell a story about how you are trying to get or have already gotten through it. People stick around to see how stories turn out.

I’ve practiced becoming a better storyteller, especially here on this blog. And it seems I’m improving.

Of course, telling a better story is still about experimentation. Even Kurt Vonnegut wrote boring stuff sometimes. Not everything is going to be incredibly interesting. There’s still crickets. But I’m seeing more consistency in traffic and tweets and emails about what I’m writing.

A couple weeks ago, I shared a story of someone who emailed me about a job they were applying for and the advice I gave them on their cover letter. Put simply, it was to flesh out the unique story that they were already trying to tell.

I just got an email that they landed the interview.

And on Tuesday May 14, 2013, I published some writing about teaching. I opened with a story in which I was stuck in a gas station trying to get gas but without a method to pay. I was broke. A conflict I didn’t resolve until the very end of the post.

13,665 people showed up to read and share that blog post of mine.

That’s quite a different feeling than the one I had standing at that lonely table.

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