Big families, big stories: Three storytelling lessons I learned while sitting at the dining room table

After being cooped up with my family since March, missing out on my final days of grad school and an in-person internship, you might think that I am itching to spend some time away from my family home – packed with siblings, parents and pets. But as Thanksgiving dinner approaches, and many Canadians have been encouraged to stay within their own households this holiday season, I find myself thankful for the people, and the turkey dinner we will share. (Maybe, too, because I don’t have to cook it.)

Like many family dinners, this one will be loud. We’ll share a laugh over a terrible joke, and pretend that the story my father is telling isn’t one we’ve heard over and over again. My sister will wonder if there will be enough leftovers, and my brother and I will fight over a turkey leg. (There’s only two, after all.)

For 25 years, I have shared countless meals with these loud, obnoxiously loving people – each meal presenting new lessons and memories, which have, without a doubt, made me a better person. I would also argue, though, that they have made me a better storyteller. Today, I’m sharing three of those lessons…

Know your audience

Okay, look…we all know that some stories aren’t for the dinner table. The stories you tell your friends will not be the same stories you tell your family. And if they are, you might consider changing your tone, making it shorter, and cutting out the parts that are…questionable, at best.

Taking the time to consider your audience makes a story more enjoyable, and potentially easier for your target audience to understand. While all writers should consider using plain language to engage with the largest possible audience, you won’t find the same story written in the same way, across all platforms.

Stay focused and get to the point

On any given Sunday night at home, there could be anywhere between five to eight family members sitting around the table. That means the fight for the spotlight is on. If I have a story, I best get to it quickly. The competition is fierce, and my brother will soon overpower us all.

If you’re still reading this, I managed to capture your attention somewhere within the first couple of paragraphs. At the dinner table, I have about thirty seconds. It’s a skill I have yet to master, although I hope I have many years of practice ahead of me.

Some stories are evergreen

Once, my father told us about the time he was playing Kick the Can with some friends by the local funeral home. In this story, he managed to kick the can so hard, that it rolled beneath a hearse. Apparently, no one was brave enough to collect it, and so everybody went home for dinner.

He first told us this story when we were children, and he’s continued to tell this story for years. Some stories, it seems, never get old. Some stories are evergreen.

Evergreen stories are stories that can be retold and rewritten repeatedly, without going stale. If you opened a new tab and Googled the phrase, “How to pick a Christmas tree” for example, you’ll find an endless supply of articles. Come November, there will be even more. (When the time comes, might I recommend this one?)

My family has played a huge role in the person I have become. This Thanksgiving I am grateful for the stories we share, the memories we make, and the lessons I’ve learned.

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