Brendan Nolan Q&A
I got interested in Brendan Nolan both because he teaches a course called “Write Your Way to Work,” which relates to my interest in using story in the job search, and because of his involvement in Toastmasters. I’m delighted to bring you this Q&A with him.
Bio: Brendan Nolan is a sought after speaker, writer and storyteller who draws on more than 25 years experience of journalism and practical business knowledge to train and entertain business people who know their business well but who may not have the communication skills to say what they mean at all times. He shows people in the corporate world and in local communities, no less, how to tell their own story well.
He twice delivered his bespoke* two-part workshops on “Telling Your Story” as part of InnovationDublin 2010.
Brendan is a member of Storytellers of Ireland; communications officer of the Irish Writers Union and a board member of the Irish Writers Centre. While President of Lucan Toastmasters Brendan guided a team that achieved The President’s Distinguished Club Award, a club’s highest honour. He won numerous speech contests with his own original material and evaluation contests in his time with Toastmasters, most of them story-based.
Nolan produces and presents Telling Tales a popular community radio show each week where writers and storytellers are interviewed on-air by Brendan and where he tells a new story each time in his own inimitable style. More than 80 original stories have been broadcast, so far. Some 25 stories may be heard online at any time.
As a book writer Brendan is author of Phoenix Park a History and Guidebook, The Irish Companion, and Barking Mad: Tales of Liars, Lovers, Loonies and Layabouts.
As a news journalist he wrote more than a million words in five years, all published and read across national, local and niche publications.
See his storytelling website.
*”Bespoke” is a term used much more in England than in the US that essentially means “customized.”
Q&A with Brendan Nolan:
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A. A teller will easily find an audience in Ireland to listen to a well-told story. The unspoken condition being that the story be interesting and have a twist or reveal; else the listeners will wander away out of politeness to an incompetent.
My father, Jimmy, told stories in an informal way and as his son at his side, I heard them often. A teller follows the story, always. My father told as to the audience before him.
On the way home, I would point out that this was not quite what he had told before. He would say he had forgotten and ask me to tell him how it should have gone. Such was his skill that I only recently came to realise he was teaching me to tell as we travelled along.
I sometimes find myself telling stories from his mouth even now. All hail Da.
In my own adulthood I worked as a news journalist for many years and during those interminable waiting periods with other reporters between news stories would listen and tell with relish those stories that never made it to print. Many of them inevitably were tall stories with the journalist as hero. Indeed.
Q: You offer a writing course called “Write your way to work,” which is of great interest to me since I evangelize about using storytelling in the job search. Without giving away any of your secrets, can you give readers a brief preview of your teachings about “how to find and write your story to best effect using a proven system?”
A: Storytelling is the art of the parent soothing a child to sleep; it’s the storyteller keeping oral tradition alive; it’s the sermon with parables to make it memorable; it’s the business consultant putting a point across through story; it’s the professional speaker constructing a speech with a beginning middle and end. Something happens, there are complications, there is a resolution.
Many stories follow a pattern of: introduction; calm; proposition; frustration; nightmare; resolution and wrap. Seven key words, seven phases all leading logically into one another making the story easier to understand and remember.
If you have been though interview and presentation in business or job-seeking, then you have experience from which to draw. Open a personal story file to correspond to the questions asked of you in the past. Keep it up to date.
Next time, you will have your story ready to tell as part of your presentation. Keep it tight: a sentence or so on each portion is sufficient; but have further detail in reserve for supplementary questions. You can use a template of “In the past this was the way; in the present this is the situation, in the future I expect it to be this way.”
In business, the story shows there was a setting, a situation, and a solution. Begin, develop, close. Make sure you were the hero of the story. You faced a challenge and you persevered.
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: Storytelling requires no props, no elaborate venue, no expensive equipment, no membership conditions or fees, no license regulations to comply with. No batteries are required. The guerrilla storyteller needs only his wit and imagination to practice his craft. He is free to follow his calling at anytime in any place.
A teller tells the story of her people as they come to her through an oral tradition of generations gone before, or she reflects her life and times as she observes it. She tells for those yet to be born.
Some tellers choose to draw from what was and what is to entertain an audience.
In times of economic uncertainty and challenge people will seek a touchstone. Stories provide reassurance. They tell us that this happened before and all was well for others, as it will be for us. In time. Live storytelling feeds the need of the teller for audience. In turn, it reassures the audience that while dark shadows lie beyond the flickering campfire there is a hero that will save the day, or at least frustrate the demon so that it goes away.
In a time of slight human contact storytelling takes us from the cave of our mind and shows there is more to life than ourselves alone and a flickering screen.
[Editor’s note: Brendan was president of Lucan Toastmasters and guided a team that achieved The President’s Distinguished Club Award, a club’s highest honor. He won numerous speech contests with his own original material and evaluation contests in his time with Toastmasters, most of them story-based. I asked him about his preparation process, in part because I am in the early stages of my own Toastmaster’s experience.]
Q: With respect to both Toastmasters and your Telling Tales radio show, Can you also talk about the best way to prepare to tell stories, whether as part of a Toastmasters speech or otherwise? Is it best to memorize, speak off the cuff, or use minimal notes? And is your preparation different when you can be seen telling stories (such as in a speech) compared to when you can’t be seen (such as when you’re on the radio)?
A: How we prepare to tell a story depends on the way it is to be delivered. For live telling you must know the story so well you can dance with it. For radio, it is better to have it scripted so you can cleave more accurately to the allotted time. For a corporate speech or presentation or in Toastmasters some brief notes can serve as a comfort to the nervous or time-challenged speaker.
In any case, we need to maintain contact with our listener, eye contact in the flesh, or aural contact if we tell on a radio broadcast.
If the brief is to speak for seven minutes then it is useful to lay out the story on cards, the size of which depends on your own preference. You can read from them or hold them in reserve as comfort cards.
I use 6” by 4”, which corresponds more or less to a minute of my speaking time. Seven cards are sufficient. I print on just one side and number them consecutively.
I study each card until I decide on a keyword for that card. Once on my feet I have just seven consecutive words to remember to deliver that speech well.
You must not use notes when storytelling to a live audience. That is where your skill as a teller comes into its own. You live the story; you tell it with wonder as it unfolds before you.
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/ narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: Too often when we prepare a story we strive for the approval of the highest being in the land, whoever that may be. We want to do our best for the story, it deserves no less. We hunger for recognition of our genius in fashioning a new story that will live long after we have passed on.
However, when we deliver it we do not get the reaction we expected. We get a reaction; just not what we thought it might be. That is because we are not well placed to be our own best judge. And our listeners do not share our experience of preparation. They react at what they see or hear. They react to our telling of the story, so we must accept that as their verdict. It is the challenge of the storyteller to have that reaction course as closely as possible to the intended result.
So, in telling the story, tell it to the one intimate listener who has not heard you before. It is a new story, a new listener, and a new journey for all.
Enjoy and give it your best. You have created a story and a telling.