Storytelling is a key pillar of effective communication. But, what if you don't have a story to tell? Here's 803 prompts to get you started.
When you start to seriously work on improving your communication — whether in speeches, writing or through any other medium — it's normal to run into a brick wall: you run out of personal stories.
For me, I encountered this problem almost immediately. The first time I decided to include a personal story in a presentation, I couldn't think of any suitable stories from my life. It was like my entire history had been rubbed from my memory.
Some people are natural storytellers, I am not. My partner, for example, can tell you many stories from her life in vivid detail. She tells the same story many times, to different people, which means she continually improves both the story itself and her ability to tell it. I have never been this type of person. This put me at a disadvantage when I decided to speak professionally: I don't have an existing collection of personal stories to draw from. I had to start creating a new one from scratch.
In this article, I'll explain why it's important to have a collection of personal stories, what stops us from remembering our stories and how you can start to build your own collection.
Why Stories Are Vital for Effective Communication
According to psychology research, stories tap directly into our emotions. This makes them a vital tool for engaging with an audience. When we start telling a story, people pay more attention to what we are saying because they start to imagine the story in vivid detail. Stories make audiences feel more connected to you.
Personal stories are possibly the most effective of all. Behavioural scientist Francesca Gino explains that teams of workers who share personal stories have been found to learn more from each other and therefore are more effective as a team.
Although stories from other people's lives can be effective sometimes, they won't engage the audience as much stories from your own life will.
However, if you are like me you might struggle to remember you personal stories. It turns out this is very normal.
Why Stories Can Be Hard to Remember
Perhaps, like me, you look into your memory and see a big black space where the past is supposed to be. Perhaps you remember one or two past events once in a while, but you struggle to remember them when called upon to "tell a story."
If so, it might be because you are not in the habit of telling your stories. But don't worry. It doesn't mean that your stories are lost forever.
According to Professor Robert Bjork, our memories do not disappear over time, despite what we have been led to believe by previous scientific theories of the mind. Our brain has a potentially limitless capacity to hold new memories. What does happen, however, is that memories become harder to access over time when we don't practise remembering them.
This means that my partner is able to remember so many stories because she practises telling them often. I don't practise telling my stories so they are not easy for me to access. However, according to Professor Bjork, we can "re-learn" old memories by practising them.
This is great news! It means that I can make my personal stories stronger in my memory just by thinking about them.
But, how do I find stories from my own life?
803 Prompts to Remember Your Personal Stories
It seems we may be able to remember our stories by getting back into the habit of thinking about them. First, then, we need to get back into the habit of thinking of our past memories.
Thankfully, there is a group of people who always need to uncover their old memories — memoir writers. There are loads of resources available to help you to uncover memories for autobiographical writing. The most common is a writing prompt:
Here are several lists of memoir and journal prompts to help you start uncovering old memories.
- 500 journal-style questions from the New York Times — The questions are in present tense and were designed for school children. As you are trying to find stories from your past, it can be helpful to change them into past tense.
- 52 memoir prompts from writer Jeri Walker
- 110 journal prompts from blogger Marelisa Fabrega
- 22 memoir prompts from WriteShop
- 119 memoir prompts from BookStrategy
7 Step Process for Using Story Prompts
Here is the process I use to use such memoir prompts. You can either write your answers out or speak them out loud and record yourself with a video camera or voice recorder.
- First set yourself a time limit. 15 to 30 minutes is usually a good level.
- Run through one of lists above and pick out a prompt that looks interesting.
- Answer the question in as much detail as you can.
- If you can't think of anything to write (or say) initially, just write "I can't think of anything to write" and keep writing whatever comes into your mind. At some point you will start to relax, which is usually when your brain starts to actually answer the question.
- Remember, don't censor yourself when you are answering these prompts.
- Ignore any thoughts like "This is a terrible story" or "this is not working." Just keep coming up with as many pieces of memory as you can.
- If you have time, do another writing prompt.
The more often you do this exercise, the better you will become at remembering stories from your life.
Good luck! Let me know how it goes in the comments below.