Secrets of Storytelling Part 1 – with my guest Matthew Dicks

Earlier this year I downloaded an audiobook called Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks and I was blown away by all the amazing secrets of storytelling he shares from his own experience as an international best selling author, 48-time winner of The Moth Story Slam and 6 time Grand Slam champion.

Matthew is also the creator of Homework for Life, a daily practice of writing down your most story-worthy moments each day and filling your world with stories. This one tool alone has been transformative for me.

In this first part, Matthew talks about how he got started with telling stories and shares some of his insights into what makes a good story or a ‘meh’ story.

Make sure you join us next week for part 2 by subscribing to ‘Speaking of Influence’.

You can find out more about Matthew Dicks on his website

Listen to the Speak Up Storytelling podcast with Matthew and his wife Elysha

And remember, you can check out the whole episode and more on YouTube

Find out more about John and presentation skills coaching through Present Influence

Episode Transcript:

John Ball 0:00
Welcome to speaking of influence with John Ball from Each week we talk about presentation skills and public speaking and the tools of influence and persuasion with experts and incredible guests. Stay tuned and enjoy the show. Speaking of influence is uploaded and distributed to all major podcast networks through Buzzsprout. Buzzsprout is the simplest way to get your podcast started with tonnes of great resources for new podcasters. You could start your podcast today follow the link in the show notes.

Fantastic. Well, I’m really happy today to introduce my guests here he is an international best selling author both in fiction and nonfiction. A 48-time winner of The Moth Story Slam six-time grand champion as well, elementary school teacher, storyteller, blogger, wedding DJ, minister, life-coach, podcaster and a co-founder of Speak-Up, which is an organisation dedicated to teaching storytelling and public speaking skills and hosting shows around the country to different organisations and networks. And I’m really happy to say he’s the author of an incredible book called Storyworthy, which is the where I was first introduced to him as well, which is why I’ve invited him on the show today. A big, big welcome to Matthew Dicks.

Matthew Dicks 1:26
Thank you very much. That was very kind of you. That was a very generous introduction.

John Ball 1:30
I think even then I’ve left some stuff out, right. You, you get so much done. You’re a very accomplished guy, and it’s quite incredible. Do you have any time for other things?

Matthew Dicks 1:44
Yeah, I spend a lot of time with my children. I play a lot of golf. I am constantly cleaning my house. I feel like so yeah, no, I get a lot done. My next book that’s coming out will be a book on productivity, actually how I managed to get things done in the way that I get done.

John Ball 2:00
Oh, fantastic. Well if there are as many secrets and tools as the story where the boat then I’m definitely going to be checking that out. Matthew, I was really excited to have you on the show today and doesn’t he just started recording your book is the only time I’ve ever picked up a book and read it and then have to reread it and then reread it again. And even then I know I’m gonna keep coming back to it, because there are so many secrets to storytelling and so many compelling stories of your own in there as well. And it was amazing. Now, I will share with you, the friend mentioned to you just before that she’s been using your materials to in her own presentation work and I’ve seen in our Toastmasters club, her presentations have rocketed just from implementing your storytelling skills. So that’s a really wonderful thing and part of why I’m so excited to have you as a guest and I want to ask you that. I know a little from the book but what got you into telling stories. I’m

Where did that start? And tell us for the audience a bit about how you got started with the math and what that is because I think a lot of the audience may not know.

Matthew Dicks 3:09
Sure. I mean, in terms of the oral storytelling, you know, telling stories of my life, I started with the moth. The moth is an international storytelling organisation, they, they promote true stories told live without notes on stages around the world, that the art and craft of storytelling. I got started back in 2011. I’m a novelist already. You know, I’ve been writing stories for all of my life, essentially, since I was 17. I’ve been writing every day of my life. So between my blog and my novels, I had been telling stories but sort of on the page, you know, not out loud, at least, not in any organised way. You know, I discovered later on that I basically had been telling stories all my life to my friends. That’s the way I get through life essentially. My wife once described me as an unlikeable person who tells a good story and obviously, she wasn’t feeling that great about me on that day, but she’s kind of correct. But back in 2011, the moth, this, this organisation, they started podcasting stories. And my friends’ point can be the podcast because they knew I was a writer and someone who would like these kinds of things. And I did. And eventually, they said, go to New York. I live about two and a half hours from New York. I said, they said, go to New York and compete in one of their competitions. And I do like competition more than I would be willing to admit. But I really didn’t want to go to New York and stand on a stage in front of hipsters and tell stories about my life. It was terrifying to me honestly. But they kept pressing and I, I kept pushing back. And eventually, I said, Fine, I’ll go and I’ll tell one story. one and done is what I said. And that’s how it began. I mean, it’s crazy because my life has changed completely in the last nine years. With the initiation of one story on one stage in New York, and thinking that would be the last one and it became one of many many, many

John Ball 5:00
Yeah, and I know this is in the book. But can you share a little of that story about how you actually ended up getting up on the stage there and speaking? Oh, sure.

Matthew Dicks 5:09
So it was at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. It was sort of this some, no, this room filled with about 300 people. And Dan Kennedy was the host that night, who is also the host of the podcast, he and the writer himself sort of a god to me today, he is my friend, which is astounding to me. But back then he was a god. And my wife was with me and we were sitting. The way a moss story slam works is they have a bag at the stage and you put your name in the bag, and they draw 10 names out. And so 10 people get to tell a story that night on a theme that’s been chosen. And so I put my name in the bag and there were about 20 people in the bag that night and as soon as I put my name and I just prayed that they wouldn’t pick me. You know, I would go home I tell my friends I tried, they would leave me alone. That would be the end of it. And we managed to get through nine names without my name being chosen. So I was certain I did not have to take the stage that night. I already like mentally gotten into the car and started heading home when I heard my name chosen. And as they said my name I froze, because it occurred to me that no one in the room actually knew who I was. So I figured as long as I sit very still and very quiet, they’ll eventually move on to another name. And I won’t have to do this thing that I really don’t want to do. But my terrible wife kicked me underneath the table, and she said, that’s your name. And I said I know. And she said You need to go and tell your story now. And I said, I really don’t want to and she said, Go tell your story. And I hated every moment of that night until I stood in front of the microphone and began speaking. And the first words that came out of my mouth, I knew that I had sort of found a place where I belonged. You know, now, rationally, my wife pointed out to me much later, years later, really, when I was telling someone how I sort of fell into something I was good at because I won that story slam that night, and I’ve gone on to win, you know, more than anyone else. I said, Oh, I just got lucky. I found something later on. In life that I was just, you know, equipped to do, and my wife shook her head and she said, You know, you’re such an idiot. And she pointed out that I had been writing all my life. You know, I was a published novelist and a blogger. And all of that turns out to be really helpful when it comes to storytelling because it informs my storytelling. I’m also a big film aficionado, like, when I was 10, I saw it for the first time. And I wrote to Steven Spielberg, I wrote him a letter telling him that I love all your movies, but you keep screwing up one or two scenes. And if he would send me the early cut of your movie, I would fix it for you. I’d tell you where you’re messing up. And you know, I just watched gt with my son two weeks ago, and I saw the same scene. I feel the same way I felt when I was 10 years old, and I wrote to Steven Spielberg, so I’m sort of really invested in stories at a young age. I’m also a wedding DJ for 20 years. So standing up in front of two or 300 people who have never met before and speaking to them was not a big deal to me that has helped. And then I’ve been a school teacher for 20 years. So I stand in front of 10-year-olds, which are the worst audience You could ever be given for seven hours a day and have learned how to hold their attention and gate and engage them. So my wife pointed out to me that all of those things sort of came together for me on that night when I took that stage. I didn’t understand that at the time, I thought I was just sort of, oh, I’m good at this, but it’s really a lot of training that I didn’t know I was engaged in.

John Ball 8:19
What was the first story that you told them that you won that competition?

Matthew Dicks 8:23
I told a story about pole vaulting in high school, and I became a pole vaulter. And really, it’s a story about how, as a pole vaulter, I was rooting against one of my fellow pole vaulters on my team, even though it would hurt our overall team if he didn’t clear opening height and prove himself. It was the admission that sometimes when you’re playing a team sport, you just want to be the best one on the team. And if your team loses, but you are one of the better performers during the loss that is actually better than your team winning and you know, getting any recognition at all. It’s it was the idea right away and I understood it right away that we have to say the things that are hard on stage in order for people to appreciate what we’re saying. So what was it an acknowledgement of vulnerability? It was the, you know, there’s a line in that story that is something like it was the realisation that I live in a pre-Copernican world where I am the centre of the universe, but no one seems to be aware of it. It was that acknowledgement that sometimes we’re selfish, terrible people, and I was on that day.

John Ball 9:32
I love your stories, that there are all sorts of different messages. It’s not all like motivational speaking about a whole variety of the whole emotional range that comes up in your stories and different life lessons, some painful and some very emotional and heartfelt. I really, really love hearing them. Thank you. Did you have specific teachers that you learned your craft from or was it more of a by doing it that you already had some sort of affinity to this and you wanted to develop it yourself?

Matthew Dicks 10:03
Yeah, I didn’t really have any teachers. I mean, I went to college and got an English degree in creative writing. I can’t really point to anyone except for a poetry teacher who really sort of guided me in terms of really writing. And years later, actually, when I went back to the poetry I wrote for him, I discovered I was really just writing short stories in the poetic form. They were all autobiography, you know, memoirs about moments in my life. What happened? Really, the thing that helped me the most was I started teaching storytelling. You know, my wife and I started producing shows here in Connecticut, there was no there was nothing around where I was living. So we started producing shows and in our show, she’s the host, and I tell a story and every single show a different story every time. And so people started seeing me a lot and they wanted to learn what I was doing, you know, they wanted they said, teach me and I didn’t want to teach them at first because I teach 10-year-olds because I don’t like adults. So I said, No, I don’t want to teach you I already I teach during the day. I don’t want to teach at night. Then finally I agreed to do one workshop again, I said one and done. I said I’m doing what teaching one workshop. I’ll never teach another one. You have to come to this one. Yeah. And I thought it was going to hate it. And it turns out, I loved it. And it’s basically what I do now all the time. But by teaching it, what I discovered was I was doing things inherently things that I had picked up through the writing and through the I don’t know that the speaking, you know, speaking engagements I was doing serve as a wedding DJ and my teaching, all of that had sort of coalesced, and inside of me, and I had a whole bunch of things that I was doing without being aware that I was doing them. But when I had to teach it, I had to examine what I was doing. Because my first instinct when I watch people tell stories was, Why are they so stupid? Why don’t they just understand how to do it? You know, I’d come home and I’d say, Honey, I can’t imagine why anyone would think that’s a good way to start a story. And she would always say, I don’t know, maybe they haven’t been writing for 20 years. I don’t know maybe they weren’t writing to Spielberg when they were 10. Maybe they aren’t obsessed with stories like you are and so You know, I always needed her to sort of knock me back. And it was through the examination of my stories, and the realisation of the strategies that I used naturally that I was able to sort of break them out into curriculum. And it made me a better storyteller too because I was able to see how, oh, I do this in 80% of my stories, but really, I should be doing it and 100% of my stories, so it improved my storytelling and the process to write

John Ball 12:22 Other than it being something that you really enjoy and are passionate about. Do you feel that there is a purpose to the storytelling that you live for may be part of your values that make you want to do that at all?

Matthew Dicks 12:36
Yeah, the follow up to Storyworthy which I’m working on right now is called the healing power of storytelling. Its sort of what I used to think was the hokey side of storytelling that no one would want to hear about. And it turns out, everybody is sort of obsessed with it. You know, for me, storytelling has brought many, many things, many benefits to my life. It connects me with other human beings in an intense and immediate way that the number of times that I step off the stage, and a complete stranger comes up to me and immediately tells me a secret from, you know, her life that she’s never said to a single human being in her entire life. But suddenly, I am the receptacle of her secret like, and that happens to me all the time. So I immediately connect with people. It’s really helpful in terms of framing your life, you know, I’ve had one of these really strange live lives filled with trauma and disaster. And some of it’s hard to live with, you know, I was homeless for a period in my life, for example, and I was homeless, mostly because no one would help me. My family sort of abandoned me and my friends were unavailable to me. And even the friends who offered to help me It turns out, they weren’t really offering help. They were sort of gesturing hoping that I wasn’t going to need it and when I really needed it, they pulled it back. And that was really hard for me for a long time to recognise the fact that I was homeless because Basically, no one loves me enough to take care of me at that point in my life. And, you know, situations like that have a way of sort of bleeding into the rest of your life and basically through your life. But what I discovered is the day that I crafted that into a story, my homelessness, that period that I had, I gave it a beginning and an end. And then in crafting the story, I found some meaning and some value in that period in my life. And then I turned it into art, you know, something that I could stand on a stage and connect with human beings and make them laugh and cry and make them examine themselves differently. And suddenly, something that sort of felt like, you know, an infection throughout my entire life that I thought about all the time. Why didn’t people love me at that point in my life, it really became a chapter in my life and an encapsulated thing that had value rather than what it had been before which was sort of festering and awful. And so I found a lot of value in that in terms of processing my trauma and dealing with disappointment. All of those things, my life feels more important. It feels more sort of visceral through storytelling, all of those things have happened to me.

John Ball 15:08
Yeah, it does seem that there is a lot of power in opening yourself up and having a high level of vulnerability through that channel that is allowing other people to connect into that. And I do think in the world of presentations, very few people do seem to be willing to pull back the curtain if you like, and show what’s really behind all the real heart or emotions of things. They’re not so pretty sides of life may not always be so appealing in this world where everyone’s trying to live their best Instagram life, for everything. Yeah.

Matthew Dicks 15:43
The trick the hard part about it is it requires courage. You know, I work with lots of, you know, corporate folks and CEOs and people like that, who I have to really convince that the stories people want to hear not the stories of your success. They don’t want to hear the wonderful days of your life. They don’t want to see your perfect Instagram photos or your lovely Facebook posts, you know, it requires genuine courage to stand up in front of people and share. You know those truths about yourself that most people don’t speak about. I’m not gonna say that I’m courageous. To be honest though. I was in a workshop recently with a woman who’s taken a whole bunch of my workshops. And she said to me, in the workshop, she said, You’re the bravest person I’ve ever met, because of what you say. And I had to correct her. Because honestly, for whatever reason, it has never been difficult for me. I have always just been an open book, you know, it’s a combination of arrogance, stupidity and narcissism that blend together to create a blanket, making it so that I don’t care what other people think about me genuinely and truthfully. But not everyone is like me, most people to get on a stage or to share with a group of people. Something really deep and personal, one of those uglier moments of our lives for most people that is extremely hard. And it requires enormous courage and when people aren’t willing to do it, essentially what is the truth is there like lacking the courage

John Ball 17:01
Yeah, you sometimes see a lot of those elements in stand up comedy as well as surprising my people do and often revealing a lot about who they are and how they see the world and their their life experiences as material for their routines as well as getting to see a lot of similarity in that?

Matthew Dicks 17:19
I do I do stand up. I don’t like it nearly as much as storytelling. The problem with stand up I have is twofold. One is stand up to making people laugh all the time. And so I tell really hard stories that sometimes don’t cause the audience to laugh at all. So there is sort of a there’s a buffer in saying hard things when you know, other people are going to laugh and feel good about them. You know, it’s much harder to say hard things when you know, you’re just sort of laying it out there absent the humour. The other thing is stand-ups aren’t always telling the truth. In fact, oftentimes they’re not they take a kernel of truth, and then they expand it into something that contains A lot of you know, a lot of dishonesty, which is perfectly acceptable in a stand-up situation. But oftentimes when they say I was talking to my girlfriend last night, they’ve been married for 15 years, and they’re really talking about something that happened a long time ago. And they’ve modified it for the sake of the joke. And so I find that stand-ups are wonderful people. I love them. I pay a lot of attention to them. But there are moments when I think you don’t have the same level of authenticity and vulnerability because you’re doing stand up. Now. I think that might not be the case. For some, I think someone like Mike Birbiglia. I think he probably leans on truth 95% of the time, but I know a lot of stand-ups don’t.

John Ball 18:37
Yeah. And that makes sense. And in the book, there’s a chapter about I think it’s the five times it’s okay to lie in a story. Is that right?

Matthew Dicks 18:44
Yes, yes. Oh, I actually, yes, I call them lies, because I like the power of that word. The rule I always have is, I never put anything into a story that didn’t actually happen. But I’m more have been willing to remove things from a story. In order for the story to be more presentable to an audience. I always say that whatever modifications I’m making to a story, whether I’m messing with time, or I’m pulling out characters I’m doing for the sake of the story, never for the sake of myself, so I’ve never changed the story in such a way to make me look better. Or even to make it funnier. I’m really doing it for the sake of the story sort of it’s the idea of straightening out all the unnecessary material. So what’s leftover can sort of shine at the brightest that it possibly can.

John Ball 19:32
Yeah, but that’s, I love the way you tell stories. And it does show that you would eat nutshell things down and in the book, you explain how much you’ve cut away. What just isn’t essential to the story. I think the story where you talk about being an airport where you needed to get a car and you couldn’t get a car and that particular on how much you had to narrow that down because there were so many elements in there that weren’t To be essential to the story, so you ended up starting it much closer to the actual event.

Matthew Dicks 20:06
Yeah, there’s that idea that everything is sort of bloated in the beginning. You know, it’s much less so now for me when I craft a story, I have better instincts. But you know, a story like that, which is me flying to Florida to rent a car. It just feels like things like the airport and the plane should be relevant to a story about going to Florida to rent a car, when the truth is, none of that matters. And the only thing that actually is important is standing at a car rental counter. And that is where the actual story takes place. It’s not my rule. It’s Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favourite authors. He had a rule for short stories, which was start as close to the end as possible. And I’ve always tried to follow that in my storytelling, although my first drafts the first attempt for me to tell stories, oftentimes that is the thing that I make the biggest mistake on them often starting in the wrong place.

John Ball 20:58
That’s interesting in itself. How long does it generally take you to craft a story to talk point where you feel that you’re ready to present it?

Matthew Dicks 21:07
It’s very different. Depending on the story, I had a story that took me five years to figure out how to tell. And I desperately wanted to tell it. And it legitimately took me five years to figure out the trick. To figure it was a story that involved a surprise, the audience had to be surprised at the end, they couldn’t see this thing coming. And I could not figure out a way for them to not see it coming. And then one day, I figured it out. But there’s also been moments where something happens to me and I can tell that story. The next day, you know, I want a story slam last year, a moth story slam. And I got to do this thing I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a story about something that happens to me at MIT. I’m teaching at MIT in Massachusetts, and I got on the stage and I said, So yesterday I was at MIT. And so over the course of those 24 hours, I had sort of put that story together and that there’s so much power and being able to stand on a stage and go so yesterday and really it was yesterday. Not that stand up yesterday, but that genuine yesterday. But I’ve put together stories in a couple of hours if there’s if they’re easy if they don’t contain a lot of backstory, you know, I’ve gotten into the car here in Connecticut and driven to New York to perform, and I prepare the story essentially, on the way to New York. I don’t write my stories out, I speak them aloud. I do everything orally. So that certainly helps to

John Ball 22:23
Yeah, how do you know them when their stories ready?

Matthew Dicks 22:28
Um, I mean, you don’t always know for sure until you’re on stage, you know, twice in my life. I’ve stood on a stage told the story, felt that was great. sat down and my storytelling friend, someone who I trusted, turned to me and said, Nope, that was not ready. So twice that’s happened to me and listening to the recording later. I went Yeah, he’s right. That was not ready. Typically, I know it when it sort of confirms or adheres to or supports my thesis statement. Every story that I tell has essentially a thesis statement. Which goes something like I used to be one kind of person. And then some stuff happens. And now I’m a new kind of person. And as I craft my story, if I look at it when I’m done, and I say, all right, everything that I’ve put into the story supports that thesis statement and nothing else. I’ve stripped it out of everything that it doesn’t mean, it doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. But once I’ve sort of confirmed and supported and verified my thesis statement, I feel like the story is ready to go. Yeah.

John Ball 23:26
One of the things and 30 so many, but one of the things I love most from the book was understanding a principle of making a real impact by doing something like having some runs of humour in a story and then having a huge impact with a big turnaround moment, a big sad moment straight afterwards for greater impact. That just really did that really struck me as like that is super powerful. And again, that was that something that you realised or that you learn from somewhere else?

Matthew Dicks 24:01
It was I didn’t learn it anywhere. I just I guess I inherently understood the power of contrast, which is enormous and storytelling. And so, you know, if I want to tell the story about, I tell a story about the death of my high school girlfriend, much later in life, you know, when she’s a mother, she passes away to cancer. I just, for whatever reason, knew that I can’t tell a five-minute story about the death of, of a mother, a young mother to cancer, no one will want to spend five minutes with me doing that. And also, I believe in the power of surprise, and storytelling more than, you know, more than I really often talk about. I just think it’s the most precious thing and storytelling. And so if you’re just going to tell a story about the death of a woman over the course of five minutes, you’re not gonna be able to surprise your audience. I understood that. In storytelling, what I want is my audience to feel the same thing that I felt at the moment that I’m describing. So in that story about my girlfriend Near the end of the story, that is when I discovered that she is dying of cancer. And I remember that moment, you know, right now, in a terrible way, I remember where we were. And I remember her speaking those words to me. And so if the goal of the story one of the goals is I want my audience to feel as devastated as I felt, I know I have to start in a place of elation, and joy in order to devastate them, right. Otherwise, there’s no way to do it. I often compare it to, if you’re dating someone, and you’re really, you want to dump them because they’re an awful person. The best way to dump someone is to take them on the greatest date they’ve ever been on in their entire life. And then at the very end of that blissful, perfect date, that’s the moment you dump them. Right. And that’s what I tried to do in storytelling. I try to manipulate their emotions in such a way that I get I hold them in one place so that I can bring them to another. And I can’t explain how I knew that. That was what needed. To be done, but I just knew it, I think probably, again, from writing and from paying attention to movies, I, if you want to be a storyteller, you’ve got to pay attention to movies, because stories that we tell are just movies that we put into the minds of our audience, we really are trying to create a movie in their mind. And so if you pay attention to what directors and screenwriters are doing on the screen, all of those things are translatable to what we do as storytellers when we’re creating those movies. And you can see them do that all the time in movies. You know, I always turn to my kids, I don’t do it to my wife because she punches me, but just pay attention to movies. And at the moment when every single thing has finally seemed to start working out for your protagonist. That is the moment when everything will go badly. And I’ll turn to my kids and I say, everything seems to be pretty good right now, doesn’t it? And then invariably, within three minutes, the world has fallen apart from the protagonists. I just I understood that that’s what filmmakers were doing and it’s what novelists do. When So that’s what I do when I’m telling stories.

John Ball 27:02
Yeah, it’s interesting because, again, this is something you talk a little bit about in the book as well. And that you can pretty much figure out where a film’s gonna go, more or less the whole story quite early on. Yeah. And I had a similar kind of realisation to that when I was at university, as part of my degree was in English. And I was studying postmodernism and watching some films as part of that. And in doing so, in watching things critically, rather than just watching them for entertainment, you just have a bit of a level of detachment and I realised that just watching a film with a level of detachment makes it a lot harder to enjoy them. Because you aren’t you start expecting things and you think, why am I seeing that or listen to the music or you notice more things that are going on when you’re not just in it to immerse yourself in the experience? And so it really struck me that you said that in your book that you can figure things out that Yeah, I reckon you pretty much can Yeah.

Matthew Dicks 28:00
Yeah, unless it’s a really artsy film or it’s, you know, a film like Memento, which was told in reverse, you know, even that’s when you can kind of figure out but I always say, pause the movie after the first 15 minutes, and you can probably tell what’s going to happen at the end of the movie, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to enjoy it. You know, my favourite example is When Harry Met Sally, we all know that Harry and Sally are going to fall in love by the end of the movie, they hate each other at the beginning of the movie. So even if you couldn’t figure it out from the title, we know they’re going to fall in love. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to love the movie, The journey can still be filled with surprise and delight and humour and sadness and all of those things. But ultimately, we know how things are going to turn out. And it’s the same thing for books. You know, I remember the first time I read Moby Dick. I remember thinking that the reason Ishmael is in this book is because his life is the only one in question. There’s no way a hab isn’t dying, right. A man obsessed with chasing a white whale is absolutely going to die in The pursuit of the white whale, right? So Ishmael is there because we have to worry about someone we can’t worry about Ahab, because we already know his fate. We can’t worry about Starbuck because within, within the first hundred pages of that book, you understand what his fate is going to be like, there’s only one redeemable person on that boat. It’s Ishmael and therefore will he live? Or will he die is the question. And so if you just start thinking about the choices that writers filmmakers and storytellers make, that’s what storytelling is. It’s about choice. Most people don’t make choices when they’re telling stories, they just say the first thing that comes to their mind, right? And if, if Melville didn’t make any choices, maybe Ishmael isn’t on that boat, and it’s just a straight line to obsession leads to death, and that would be the end of the story. So it’s just about making good decisions and good choices, thinking about what your audience is feeling at all times.

John Ball 29:50
Yeah. As someone who is a competitive speaker in a different way in Toastmasters competitions, are quite severely judged as their marketing Because you talked about you said anything get individual scoring better or that you can place in different positions but and in that environment, particularly where I myself and seen many other people tell many stories, you see a lot of good and a lot of bad and I’m sure you have as well. And one of the things that I think sometimes tends to trip people up the most is trying to use props or visual aids in the story as well, which you mentioned in the book as just a genuine No, no. What What is your general What are your thoughts about that when you see other people using it, because sometimes it can be used really well, but for your kind of storytelling? Probably not.

Matthew Dicks 30:41
No, I almost never. I was teaching a blind woman once who was telling a story about her came and she said, Can I bring my cane on the stage and even that, I thought, I guess you’re blind. You can have your cane. The problem is is that for me story I want people to get lost in their heads. I want them to actually forget that I exist. I want them to sort of forget where they are and who they are, which genuinely happens. I know it sounds crazy. But you know, if you’re watching the end of the film Titanic, and you’re crying, which you probably are, most people did write we’ve cried over Jack and rose in the ocean as jack died, even though we know that’s just Leonardo DiCaprio. And he’s not in the ocean. He’s in some pool in Hollywood, right? And that’s just Kate Winslet. She’s gonna be in a whole bunch of other films. They’re not even like, they’re the only two non-fictional characters actually in the movie. Everyone else in the movie actually lived on the Titanic and experienced those things. But we cry because we kind of forget who we are and what we are. For a moment. We’re in the North Atlantic with two people. And I want to do that in storytelling. I want to get people to forget where they are and who they are. And I think as soon as they take out a prop, I remind them actually you’re sitting in a theatre I am a storyteller standing on the stage. And now I’m holding a thing, right and I just can’t imagine ever having a thing that is worth stopping the movie in their head, and reminding them of where they are and having them stare at my thing. The best one I ever saw. The only one I really appreciated was at a month, one night in New York, a woman was talking about her bulimia, and how she was trying to get herself to throw up by with a spoon, and she swallowed the spoon. And so the spoon caught somewhere between her stomach and her mouth. She told the whole story, finished it and then took out the X-ray, and held it up for all of us. And I thought that was perfect because I am happy I saw the X-ray, but I’m also happy you waited until the story was done. You know, essentially the lights went up in the theatre. The story was complete, and then she held up the extra thought that worked for me otherwise it almost never works. Right? You

John Ball 33:00
I can remember years ago, this is my student days though, so quite some time ago that went to see a one-man production of Beowulf. It was in a function room above a pub. And it was an incredible actor who is really just the storyteller, telling the story acting out the parts, and it was captivating. I don’t even remember how long it was. I think it was quite a long show. And yet that story just kept us all completely hooked into it and sad that it finished. I agree. Have you ever had experiences like that with other people’s stories?

Matthew Dicks 33:42
Oh, yeah. Oh, there I mean, I have been blessed to see brilliant brilliant stories that feel like they took a minute and they went 11 minutes and you can’t believe it’s done. You know, I think that there are just some storytellers who understand the fundamentals of the craft. And have that ability to perform as well. You know, there. I’ve heard great storytellers or I’ve, I’ve heard great stories told by people who I have to worry about, you know that that feeling on stage where, oh, are you going to get through this? As soon as I’m worried about you in some way, you know, if you’re not exuding confidence, if you haven’t made me feel at ease, it’s hard to get lost in your head. If you’re worried about the person who’s speaking. You know, if you’re like, you can do it. Come on bright flower. Tell us your story. Right? That’s, that’s, it’s fine. There’s a lot of vulnerability in it, but I don’t get lost in my head. So I’ve been fortunate enough to hear brilliant, brilliant stories over the years and I’ve also been fortunate to hear some train wrecks because those are rather amusing as well, depending on how long they are.

John Ball 34:42
Do you find you learn for even from watching the train wrecks?

Matthew Dicks 34:47
Sometimes, sometimes they’re just, they’re just so fiery and explosive that there’s nothing to learn from. I actually learned more from the sort of storytellers who are doing these things that they’re not quite aware that they’re doing, you know, they use a strategy or they use a trick that they don’t realise the power of it. And I can sort of steal it from them, you know, and, you know, turn it fashion it into a tool that I will use all the time. Whereas for them, they just sort of stumbled upon something that was unintended. You know, oftentimes I tell storytellers, I love the way you did this and the story and they say, Oh, I didn’t even know I was doing it. You know that is often the case for many people. And what I’ve learned is to just steal these things that they don’t know they’re doing and to weaponize them for myself.

John Ball 35:32
Right. One of the things you mentioned earlier was about telling some quite emotional stories. And I know when I’ve done that, sometimes in the past, I’ve really struggled to get through the stories. How do you get through even telling a story that really is, you can tug on people’s heartstrings but is deeply emotional for you?

Matthew Dicks 35:52
Well, first off, I always say it’s fine to be emotional on stage. You know, as long as you haven’t reached the level of like snot bubbles. I think you’re kind of Okay, you know, there are some tricks that I use. When I tell stories, I see the story. In my mind’s eye, I sort of re-experience it. But there are moments and stories that I know, create an enormous amount of emotion in me. And in those moments, what I do is I detach from the story intentionally. So rather than seeing it through my mind’s eye, I forced myself to sort of float above the story, I almost start telling the story about a guy who is not me, even though I’m still using the word AI and speaking in the first person, I sort of see it as a story about someone else, I force myself to do that. I can also sort of neuter those challenging sentences by saying them over and over again turning them into words rather than meaning. Water onstage is extremely helpful. It’s a strange thing. One of my friends is a highly competitive guy who started telling stories. He says that water trick is the greatest trick of all time and like it’s not really a trick but what he was telling an emotional story one night, and I said, just have a bottle of water with you. And as you start to get emotional, have a sip of water. The use of it is when you take a sip of water, essentially, you really bring an end to the story for a moment, you completely stop the story and therefore you stop the emotion. And so then when you start the story back up again, wherever you’ve stopped, you know, you’re starting from a place of neutral rather than a place of emotion. So that really can help. And I always remind people that if you have to pause in a story to take a drink, or just to collect yourself, it is very likely that the audience appreciates, appreciates that pause too because they are probably also emotional, and would like to take a breath as well. So there are lots of strategies you can use. You can also put a laugh line, right after something deeply emotional, and that’ll cause the lions to laugh and make you feel better too. So sometimes the way you construct an emotional moment can help you get through it too.

John Ball 37:50
Right? What are the most common mistakes that you see other people make in storytelling?

Matthew Dicks 37:58
The most common mistake, I think is Not starting in the correct place. Most people think that they have to tell us a lot of things before the story can actually start. You can hear it when people are telling us someone’s telling a story to you. And at one point, halfway through the story, they use this phrase they say one day, and whenever they say one day, that’s actually the beginning of the story. What they’re saying is I just told you a whole bunch of stuff, so that I could tell you the story, but that’s not how stories really should be told. Right? My favourite example I always say if you’ve ever seen the film Apollo 13, right, that is a film that relies upon you understanding something about 1960s space travel, you really have to understand how NASA worked in 1960 to understand this film, but the movie does not start with Tom Hanks on the screen saying Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, before the story begins, I need to tell you a little bit about 1960s space travel right? Instead, the filmmakers wisely so they sprinkle the information that you need as the story progresses. Which is the way the story should be told. But most people feel when they’re telling a story that like, you need to know a whole bunch of things about my mother and about my life at that time and about what, where I am and what got me here when none of that really ever matters. And if it does launch your story first. So starting in the wrong place is often the mistake that I’m correcting the most often. The other thing people do, I just heard a story on a podcast before we talked, people tell stories about stuff that happened to them over the course of time. I just heard one of these stories, but it’s just stuff that happened to them over the course of time, right? It was a story I was just listening to about a woman with a terrible roommate. Essentially, what it amounted to was I moved in with someone, they ended up being terrible. Here’s how terrible they were. And one day I moved down. That’s essentially what her story was. That’s not a good story. That’s a terrible story. So people don’t fundamentally understand that a story in To be about a moment of change in your life, a moment of transformation or realisation, either I used to be one kind of person. And now I’m another or I used to think one way. And now I think another that is the way to emotionally connect with people. That’s the way to move people. every movie you ever see, every book you’ve ever read will always be about a character beginning in one place, and ending in a different place. But so many times people come to me and they think they have a good story because something crazy happened to them. You’re not gonna believe what happened to me. And like, if I don’t know if I was half drunk, maybe that might be entertaining to me a good bar story, but not something that’s going to stay with me and not something that’s worth my time. So those are the two biggest mistakes I see made most often.

John Ball 40:39
Yeah, sometimes we think things that we may have found funny in our own life or going to be funny to other people, whereas they may actually only have been specifically funny in that context in your own life and

Matthew Dicks 40:50
right or even things that are remarkable, like an amazing coincidence happens to someone. And you just think like, this is amazing. I have to tell the world, but the world is filled with question. incidences. And it turns out that your coincidences are really only amazing to you. Unless you can somehow weave them into a way that it fundamentally changed you as a human being, then maybe your coincidence will have some value otherwise, it’s nothing.

John Ball 41:13
You’ve said that each story really is only five seconds long.

Matthew Dicks 41:18
Yes, I really believe that. I think that when we those moments of transformation and realisation… COME BACK FOR PART 2

John Ball 41:26
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. If you have, please make sure to like and subscribe and come back for more great episodes and chats with amazing people. If you think you’d be a good guest for the podcasts or you know someone who would or you think I’d be a good guest for your podcast, please feel free to get in touch. You can email me, john at present if you think I’d be a good speaker for your event, or you’d like to learn more about public speaking presentation skills, whether that’s online or in-person, creating online products and services video comm Having clarity, confidence and charisma in all doing that, then please shoot me an email or visit my website, present influence calm and I’ll see you there.

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