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Life Kit: How to tell a good story

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You don't have to be a professional storyteller to tell a good story. And we all do tell stories constantly to our friends, our families, even our co-workers. For our Life Kit series, NPR's Elise Hu spoke with the directors of the storytelling organization The Moth, to find out how anyone can learn to tell stronger and more meaningful stories.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: It's hard to know which of our stories is worth telling. And that's the first consideration.

MEG BOWLES: We talk about, like, sitting down with an old scrapbook - right? - in your mind of your memories.

HU: That's Meg Bowles, senior director on The Moth team. She's one of the co-authors of The Moth's new book, "How To Tell A Story."

BOWLES: Your first kiss or, like, certain moments that just - memories that stick with you and dig in to that, like, why do they stick with you? Why was that important to you? And suddenly you start to see patterns of your story arise.

HU: Big decisions are a good place to find stories, so are embarrassing moments and mistakes. Think of times when things didn't quite go as planned. Within these kinds of prompts, you can begin to zoom in on a story worth telling.

BOWLES: What were the results of this event happening to you? Ultimately, what is the story about for you? Just gelling it down to one sentence that can really tell you what the focus of the story you want to tell is.

HU: That one sentence is your story's spine. When the story's central decision or moment is clear and so are the stakes, the structure can be dealer's choice.

BOWLES: You don't have to get too fancy with a story.

HU: Some stories start at the end. Others are a series of flashbacks that might jump around in chronology. Meg Bowles says the simplest route is often straight through.

BOWLES: Chronological sometimes is the best way to tell it, you know? Because you want to take people through the journey so they can experience what you experienced, you know, and feel like they're walking with you.

HU: Bringing the story in for a landing can be the hardest part to write.

SARAH AUSTIN JENNESS: Stories in real life usually aren't all tied up in a bow.

HU: That's Sarah Austin Jenness, The Moth's executive producer.

JENNESS: You just have to end the story in a different place than where you began. So there's the you that we meet in the beginning, and then there's the you that we're left with. And at the end we can see starkly what your change was, even if the change was slight. So at the end of the story, you're a different person.

HU: This kind of storytelling prep comes in handy in so many life situations. We have stories to tell in job interviews, on dates. We give toasts and eulogies. While these situations really range, a couple pointers reach across the various storytelling situations. Here's Jenness.

JENNESS: The best advice is, no complaining. You know, you want to find the moments that illuminated something new or surprised you. But no one wants to hear a list of grievances.

HU: And they say, keep it short and tight.

JENNESS: You're trying to show someone new what you value and who you are, and then your stories open it up for them to tell stories.

HU: The point of storytelling, after all, is to connect, share and meaningfully engage with others.

JENNESS: The Moth looks like a storytelling organization, and it is. But it's really a place where we ask people to practice the art of listening.

HU: The most memorable stories are the ones well heard. Elise Hu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You can find more tips and life hacks at npr.org/lifekit Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.