Stories make for engaging communication. But, what if you can't remember stories from your life? Now is the perfect time of year to collect them!
Stories are one of the most effective tools for creating engaging communications. Whether you are giving a speech or presentation, writing a blog post, or recording a podcast, a story will make your audiences engage much more strongly with your message.
Personal stories are especially effective.
But, what if you can't remember stories from your life? This is the problem that I ran into when I started looking for personal stories for a recent speaking project — I couldn't think of any! It was like my whole past had been wiped from my memory.
Thankfully, this is the perfect time of the year to go on a "story hunt".
During the festive, stories are flowing like chattering rivers of gold. We meet with our family, friends and childhood neighbours, and we all reminisce about our past together.
Perhaps we tell stories at this time of year because we don't know what to say to each other. Surrounded by people who have become passing acquaintances over time, shared stories are usually a safe topic of conversation. Risky topics, on the other hand, include politics, religion and methods to dispose of a corpse.
In past years, perhaps these conversations just seemed "routine" to you. This year, it will be different. You can now turn these conversations to your advantage! Use them as an opportunity to collect stories that you can reuse again and again in your communications.
Here are six ways to gather stories over the festive season:
1. Have a Plan
First, decide what sort of stories you want to gather. What do you need the stories for? What messages do you want to demonstrate with these stories?
For example, I am naturally a socially awkward person. My past is filled with instances where my shyness and inarticulate nature has got in my way. When I am teaching about public speaking, for example, these stories are a useful illustration of the effects of bad communication. They can also be a good place for humour. I need a collection of these stories to use in my speeches, books and blog posts.
In the past, I have tried to avoid thinking about these memories because they make me feel uncomfortable. Now, I need those memories back. My goal this festive season is to find stories from my past which demonstrate my shyness.
Think about what type of stories you need. Decide on one or two topics or messages you want to focus on. However, these topics should only be a guide. Be open to every story that you find, even if it doesn't quite match the message.
2. Ask Yourself
Before you start asking other people, take some time to try to think of memories yourself. Perhaps you can't think of many personal stories because you have never sat down to try.
One of the most effective ways of uncovering lost memories is to ask yourself some questions to prompt yourself. Check out this list of 115 memoir writing prompts to help you get started.
If you remember a few details but can't remember the rest of the story, note down your vague memories and ask others for more details.
3. Ask Your Family
The fascinating thing about memory is that everyone has different memories of the same events. Even though you shared your past with your family, you will probably all remember different parts of it. This makes family members your first port of call for finding your personal stories.
This festive period, instead of arguing about the dubious life choices of your siblings, try asking your family members about stories from your past. Remember, you are doing this to uncover lost memories, not push your version of events. Keep an open mind and encourage everyone to provide details.
4. Ask Your Friends
It's common during the festive season to meet up with friends you haven't seen in a long time. Perhaps each of your friends represents a different part in your past. This makes them a great way to start thinking about stories from that moment in your life.
Before you meet up with a friend, think about the time you spent together in the past. List some of the faint memories you have about that time and use these as seeds to start a conversation.
You could also write some specific questions to slip into your conversation. For example, if you were looking for stories which demonstrate your obsessive dedication to projects, you could ask your friend: "When you first met me, what mad projects did I have on the go?" Obviously, the wording of your question will depend on your personality. For me, all of my projects tend to be quite crazy so this would be a suitable wording.
5. Ask Your Neighbours and Acquaintances
If you are returning to a long-standing family home this festive season, you might end up talking to neighbours and acquaintances from your past. I don't know about you, but sometimes I find it challenging to talk to those people I only see once a year.
I can handle the initial conversation:
"Oh, pretty much the same. And you?"
"Yep, mine's the same too."
"Well it's nice to see you anyway."
"Yes I wasn't expecting to be alive this long."
However, after such stimulating repartee is exhausted, it's sometimes hard to think of anything much to talk about.
These acquaintances can be a great source of stories about your past. They have fewer recent memories of you than, say, your parents so they may be able to unlock memories of events that you would otherwise have forgotten.
6. Find Diaries or Photos
While you're digging around your attic for decorations, keep an eye out for any old photos or diaries you kept when you were younger. These can be great sources of seed memories that you can develop into fully blown stories later.
It could also be a fun activity for the whole family! Get a box of photos and sort through it together.
How to Remember the Stories People Tell You
"Okay" you might be thinking "but how do I remember the stories that people tell me afterwards?"
You have a few options:
- Record your conversations — I do this quite a lot. My family are now used to me bringing along a recorder as we chat, or turning on the voice recorder on my phone. Reassure them that nobody will listen to the recording, you're just doing it in case any interesting memories come up. After about five or ten minutes, most people will forget that the recorder is running. This method is particularly useful if you are sitting down with a box of photos. Just make sure your recorder has enough battery and memory to record for a few hours.
- Make notes afterwards — This is the least intrusive method. When someone tells you a good story, go away and make some notes after you have finished talking to them. Keep a notebook handy. You won't be able to write lots, but note down as many specific details as you can.
- Make notes during individual conversations — Although this is a common technique for journalistic interviews, I don't recommend this method for gathering personal stories one-to-one. Unless you are formally interviewing a person, they will feel so awkward when you start writing that they will probably stop speaking. Also, you will be too distracted by thinking about your writing to contribute much to the conversation.
- Make notes during group conversations — On the other hand, you may be able to get away with making notes if you are in a large group of people telling stories together. Be subtle about your note-taking and only write down a few key words. It's not that you are trying to keep it secret, just don't make it so obvious that you derail the conversation.
- Record yourself afterwards — One of my favourite methods is to turn on the voice recorder on my phone, hold it up to my ear and dictate some notes into it — it looks like you're just having a conversation on the phone. This method is a much quicker way to note down specific details than writing in a notebook. If you're in a party, for example, you can just go into another room, quickly dictate your notes into your phone and go back to join the others. Obviously you don't want to be doing this all the time so be strategic.
Don't Worry About "The Truth"
Finally, don't let the "facts" get in the way of a good story.
You're not going to be telling your story in a court of law. You are looking for stories which might potentially illustrate your message as effectively as possible.
Of course, you shouldn't lie about a story. Just don't sweat the small details. If two people remember an event differently, note down both their versions. You might later find that one version is better suited to your speech or writing. Note down as many details as you can.
Do you struggle to remember personal stories? Or do you find it really easy to remember them? Let us know in the comments!