The theme of this week's podcast (episode 50!) is creating new stories, so it's as good a time as any to finally put together a post I've wanted to create since we started the business in 2017 - on how to turn your adventure story into something you'll be excited to share publicly.
No. Wrong. You ARE impressive.
At Boldly Went events, hundreds of you have taken the mic to tell your favorite adventure stories, and we know that's required some guts. Public speaking is way freakier than facing down a grizzly or hiking through a lightning storm above treeline - especially when you know you're being recorded.
To provide inspiration, and a few time-tested principles for those of you who are the planning type, in this post I'm going to expound upon and illustrate a strategy you can use to put your story together. From the start we've established a few guiding principles for storytellers, and at our events, we always encourage you to
A big part of our philosophy is that you don't have to be a world record holder (not that there's anything wrong with that) in order to tell a great adventure story, so I've intentionally chosen an experience that was personally formative, but not particularly impressive. We believe that with a little bit of structure, anyone can take a memorable experience and turn it into something compelling, and with a bit of planning, even the most humble adventurer can captivate an audience.
First though, I feel I must pay respect where respect is due, and extend a special thanks to my friends Mike and Tim, who helped me have the type of ridiculous teenage experiences that make memorable stories as an adult.
1. Go out hard
Our first rule of thumb is to “Go out hard,” because it’s classically good storytelling advice to capture a listener’s attention as quickly as possible. That can mean opening with a “hook” by asking a question, saying something quick and shocking, or starting out with a bit of humor. But it’s not just about your first line. It also means setting the scene concisely and evocatively right at the start. You want people to feel like they’re there, and have a rough sense of where they’re going, quickly.
We were 17, three friends eating spaghetti in the bathroom at Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Smokies, and it was the first day of our first backpacking trip. While it was spring at home in Ohio, in the mountains in Tennessee winter would hold out for at least another month.
It's not necessary to have your entire story memorized line by line, but it is a very good idea to have your first and last lines constructed and memorized. It's also worthwhile to practice saying them out loud.
2. Stay on course
When you’re telling a story, you’re sharing the details of an experience, and you’re doing it for a reason. That might be as simple as making the audience laugh, or it could be as complex as evoking a set of emotions that will motivate them to action.
Staying on course means keeping what you say focused on that overall goal.
“Building and releasing tension”
I’ve heard it said that good stories create tension that they eventually release. Setting a course means determining how you can accomplish that task most effectively.
If, like me, that previous sentence means almost nothing to you because you’re not an academic who studies storytelling theory (not that there’s anything wrong with that, Ellen), it’ll probably be helpful to get a bit more concrete.
Human beings tend to be intrigued by questions and answers, problems and solutions, and mysteries. So good storytelling strategies are to start by posing a question, introducing a problem, or describing a situation that makes the listener wonder “How the hell did that happen?” That’s the “tension” we’re talking about: that edge-of-the-seat feeling that comes with wondering what will happen next.
Then, the story’s “course” is simply the means by which you answer the question, fix the problem, or solve the mystery. Once you’ve done so, the “tension” will be released.
From my introduction, I’m hoping you’re wondering how I ended up in a bathroom eating spaghetti, why I decided never to go outside after that trip, and why I got hooked on outdoor adventure after such an experience. All three are “tensions” that I hope will keep you interested, and will be resolved by the end. Most good stories have one central tension (problem/question/mystery), and multiple smaller ones that keep you moving along. So, I’ll start by letting you know how we ended up eating in a bathroom in the Smokies.
We didn’t know what we were getting into, but I guess we should have guessed that it wasn’t going to go well from the start when we arrived in my friend Tim's van at the base of a Forest Service road we’d hoped to drive to reach the beginning of our hike, and found it was still closed for the season. But it was a sunny day, and the closed gate only meant an extra seven mile uphill road walk, so we were optimistic. I tucked a block of yellow grocery store cheese into my pocket, we tossed on our packs, and we set out.
Details can be great, but If it doesn’t matter to the story, or isn’t interesting, don’t include it.
A quick but important side note here: it’s an art to determine which details to include to pique interest, and which to leave out as irrelevant. I’m not sure there’s a hard and fast rule, but in general the idea is to keep your details interesting, funny, and/or oriented towards the goal of keeping the narrative moving forward. It’s irrelevant that I had on rain pants - so I don’t tell you that. It’s also a cliche truth that our packs were too heavy, so I didn’t include that. That cheese block is also generally irrelevant, but it allows me to slip in a funny anecdote at the end, so I included it here.
Your story’s flow should be logical, but that doesn’t always mean chronological (though when in doubt that’s always functional…).
Good stories frequently tie in flashbacks and foreshadowing, and weave in details when they become relevant rather than when they happened in time. So while moving through the details of an experience in chronological order can be a functional approach, it isn't necessary. Sometimes jumping around in time can be more compelling or appropriate.
Related side note: a common storyteller hiccup is to to use the phrase: “Oh I forgot to mention...” to point back towards an important detail they had intended to share earlier. A good tip from this fount of internet knowledge is that this is never optimal, because it interrupts the thought process for your listeners. If you forget a detail, don’t stress, just try to weave it in naturally when it becomes crucial to the narrative. It can have more impact in the moment than in its chronological order anyway, as with the detail here that my friend was sick from the start.
We were already exhausted here in the bathroom, even if we didn’t want to admit it to each other. My friend, Tim, had neglected to mention that he was feeling feverish on the drive from Ohio to Gatlinburg, and my other buddy Mike wasn’t talking about the tears in his skin that had already formed on the back of his heels. We were 7 miles in, only now at our intended start, and had 3 miles more to go until our first potential camping spot - an Appalachian Trail shelter.
3. Make your listeners laugh, cry, or hurl
Good stories engage the intellect, but the advantage they have over didactic lectures is that they also capture the emotions of listeners who can step into the experience and feel it for themselves. In this regard, tying in emotions to a story can be as simple as saying what you were feeling in the moment, but it’s almost always better to “show, rather than tell,” as the saying goes.
For example, next up, it would be functional to say:
It was still raining, and night was quickly approaching. We were scared, but stupid, so we set out from the safety of the shelter into the woods.
But I want you to decide that we were scared and stupid for yourselves, so a better way to show that would be something like:
We’d eaten our pasta, it was safe in the bathroom, and Tim had started to complain of a sore throat. The weather was still raging outside and night was approaching, and we were all internally contemplating rolling out our sleeping bags between toilets and walking back down the hill in the morning. But rather than admit defeat, we silently packed our bags and headed into the woods.
4. Gnar factor
There are lots of stories worth listening to, but a distinctive aspect of adventure stories are that they are, by definition, about overcoming adversity, and we think that’s what makes them consistently inspiring. That’s also why we encourage presenters to think about, and communicate, the “gnar factor” of their experiences: the seriousness of the adversity to be overcome in their particular adventure.
A key point about adversity is that it can be due to extreme external challenges or difficult internal issues to overcome, or some combination of both, and all types of stories work as long as you can communicate. The challenge might be a literal Mt Everest, or a figurative one, because listeners will find inspiration in both.
In my case, my story was really just about an 11 mile hike, 7 of which was on a road. It objectively wasn’t that hard. But for us it turned into a memorably brutal slog, so that’s the picture I want to paint.
Three naive flatlanders hiking towards nightfall in an unfamiliar mountain environment, we had visions of being attacked by the bears we’d seen the day before on a drive through Smoky Mountain National Park. But it wasn't until we arrived at our planned shelter at dusk that we encountered the only wild animal on our trip - a hairy thru-hiker, all alone.
5. Finish strong
As with the start of the story, finishing strong is one of the most crucial elements of constructing a memorable and engaging adventure story. And, as with the start, it isn’t just about a strong closing line - important as that is. It’s about resolving those tensions we talked about earlier: answering the question, addressing the problem, or solving the mystery. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for.
The climax is the moment when the central tension in the story resolves for the listener. It’s how you survived the fall, got out of the woods, made it through the jungle, or learned that crucial lesson.
Sometimes a climax happens dramatically in a line or two, but most often it develops over a few minutes where situations come to a head, resolutions are achieved, and questions are answered. During this moment, the time progression in your story often expands and your narrative becomes more detailed. As in the beginning, this is where a stage is set, a picture is painted, and the central emotional experience of the adventure is highlighted. The climax doesn’t have to be a major, explosive event, or even the most dramatic thing that happened. The fall that sets up a narrative, for instance, is often more dramatic than the rescue. But it does encapsulate the central experience you wanted to share.
We’d planned a 7 day trip, but when we woke up the next morning, both Tim and Mike agreed that we wouldn’t be going any further. We blamed the sick thru-hiker, but more likely Tim’s existing illness had just progressed, and over night he’d broken out in cold sweats and bouts of nausea. Mike too had fallen ill (or more likely exhausted and too proud to admit it), and the decision was made to get some extra sleep in the hut.
The climax of a story typically isn’t the same thing as the conclusion. While the climax is the story’s focal point, afterwards there will usually still be loose ends to tie up and interpretations to expound upon, and that’s what your conclusion is for.
Some general principles, particularly for short form stories like the ones we create:
Because the climax should have wrapped up the key points of tension in the story, listeners will relax, and begin to disengage from the experience. In order to prevent this from slipping into boredom, keep the conclusion short.
Stories will often be more satisfying if you can weave in a little bit of “why this was important” into your conclusion. This can look like a short “what happened later” section, or a bit about “what I learned.” But try not to get didactic: don’t tell the listener what to think. Share your own conclusions from the experience while also giving them space to come to their own.
In a conclusion, there’s frequently a shift in mood: sometimes that looks like a “tense” change from past to present, a shift from a detailed description of events to a broader sketch, or from narrative to reflective interpretation.
The conclusion of the story should tie up important loose ends, but you might also leave the listener wondering about a few things intentionally, because open questions can make for memorable narratives. (An extreme example of this was the last episode of The Sopranos, if you’re familiar. Spoiler alert.)
Tie the end back to the beginning. You can answer a question you posed, or reference back to something you said at the start. I’m not sure why - it’s just satisfying to end, in some way, where you began.
And when you conclude, make sure listeners know you’re finished. A pithy punchline isn’t essential, but it also usually works in lieu of other ideas.
We made it out of the woods. The following morning, the rain had turned to sleet, and Tim was still ill, but we made it back to the bathroom at Clingman’s Dome after a long, hard trudge (which in retrospect was only about 4 miles). We were once again contemplating using it as a shelter for the night when we saw a young couple drive up. In the two days since we’d started, the Forest Service had reopened the road, and we were able to convince the drivers to let us hitch down the hill in the back of their truck - cold, sleety, and miserable, but we were ecstatic to avoid the long hike back down.
Finally, just practice!
In another year or so, maybe I'll get around to creating a post about actually telling your story.
But for now, I really do think that 90% of good presentation just comes down to practice, and that you don't have to be a theater major to tell a good story in public. If you can just come off as your normal self, your story is going to work.
And your best bet for coming off as your normal self is to eliminate the stress of remembering what you want to say by practicing enough times that your story flows out naturally. For me, that usually means saying it out loud 8 - 10 times. My personal strategy is to write down what I want to say, read what I wrote out loud 3 - 4 times, and then start to fly independently - telling the story in a natural voice several times rather than repeating rote what I've written. Then, ideally, I practice in front of another person 2 - 3 times before braving a crowd.
Some people don't write everything down in detail, but it is helpful at least to write out the key events you want to cover, and practice moving between them out loud. Anyone, no matter how experienced, will benefit from telling the story out loud multiple times before presenting, and there's really no substitute for practice. In the practicing process, your story will change and shift, will take on more of your personality, and will become something you can rattle off comfortably in your sleep.
The best of the best practice dozens of times, and we love when people come with real art in their storytelling. But honestly we're not that great at storytelling ourselves, and we're not only about that anyway. We want to collect your stories even if you're not a pro, because we want to help people experience the heart of the outdoor community. So, we want to provide a platform for you adventurers who can paint evocative pictures like professionals, but we also want to help those of you who aren't there yet feel comfortable sharing your best experiences in front of a crowd.
Because our core belief is that you all are impressive, and the world needs to hear about it.
We also encourage prospective storytellers to watch the video on our Prepare to Share page from our friend Dean Burke, a TedX coach and a way better storyteller than us.
Check out our upcoming shows and get your tickets.
If there's not a show in your town, and you want there to be, email us.
When you sign up for our newsletter, we'll send you weekly updates about our podcast and favorite stories.
And if you like what we're doing here, and want to become a part of it, consider supporting us at Boldly Went on Patreon.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.