Long Story Short: The Only Storytelling Guide You'll Ever Need by Margot Leitman (Book Review)
By Liz Murphy
One of my goals for 2019 was to prioritize... well, me.
Being an only child, you'd think that would be something that comes naturally -- like breathing or hating the Dallas Cowboys with the fire of a thousand suns -- but, strangely enough, investing in myself is not something I do well.
Prior to this year, whenever I've been given a chance to do something purely for myself (specifically, anything in the realm of professional development), I've found a way to talk myself out of it.
"I don't have enough time. It costs too much. I need to take my cat to the dentist. Etc."
You name it, I had an excuse why I couldn't do something.
So, about a month ago, I decided to make a change, and I signed up for a four-day keynote speaker intensive workshop and retreat called Speak with Confidence.
Even though my husband, Patrick, and I are closing on a new house on April 19, I'll be leaving to go on this retreat on April 3. Because I'm an insane person.
Anyway, leading up to this retreat, we've been given a lot of homework. In addition to a giant workbook, online discussion forums, and one-on-one coaching calls, we were each sent a copy of Margot Leitman's Long Story Short: The Only Storytelling Guide You'll Ever Need.
Full disclosure, I'm someone who loves to talk a big game about all the books I'm totally going to read while I travel. But, in reality, once I'm done snapping an Instagram-worthy shot of my carry-on bag and whatever book I'm bragging about reading on the internet, I'll pick through a few pages before caving to my compulsion to read Reddit for many hours.
That did not happen with this book.
Yes, I still took the obligatory Instragram shot...
...but on my recent trip to Chicago, I found myself devouring this book after I posted it at my gate in the airport, then on the plane ride, and on the L train heading downtown, and basically any other spare moment I could catch.
Not just because Leitman (an award-winning storyteller and comedian) had so many lessons for me as a would-be speaker, but also because so many of the insights and advice were transferrable to what I do as a content marketer.
So, while I recommend that all of you content marketers out there need to read this book -- whether you want to be a speaker or not -- here are a few of the key nuggets of wisdom that jumped out at me that I think we can all take to heart as we create content for our brands.
#1: Amazing Stories with Big Lessons Can Come from Anywhere
Back in my early days as a content manager, one of the most common objections I would get from a subject matter experts I was interviewing for content was, "But I don't really have anything interesting to talk about."
Lo and behold, with a little poking and prodding in the form conversational questioning, the very same people who said they had no stories to share that would be relevant to their (usually) B2B audience ended up putting their byline on some of the most compelling, shareable blog content their company was producing.
According to Leitman, this is also a fear she encounters a lot from folks she coaches in her own storytelling class, so she called out the fear that most readers were probably also experiencing in the very first chapter:
"How do I unlock the incredible, emotional, and interesting stories within me? I'm not in a storytelling class, and I don't think there is anything interesting about me. I'm tired already, and we're only on the first chapter. What's up with that?"
"You're numb to your own experiences. It's your life, you live it every day, and it's extremely boring to you. But it isn't boring at all. It's fascinating."
🙌 "Yes, this!!!" I scribbled in the margins after furiously underlining it three times.
Not only did I agree with this in principle and had been preaching it for years, it's also an important reminder.
Some of the best contextual storytelling I've seen done by content marketers and contributors are blog articles rooted in true, real life experiences.
Sometimes they're funny, like when MicroAutomation's Chad Wright infused a bit of subtle humor about being "that dad" going through his work email subscriptions while at an all-day dance competition for his daughters to tell a larger story about preferred methods of customer communication.
Other times, the stories can be serious.
For example, when our own Ramona Sukhraj shared the racist reply she received from a subscriber of THE LATEST back in December. She used that story to talk about the implications of putting yourself out there as part of a content marketing strategy and the larger discussion we need to be having as an industry around this kind of behavior.
Or when IMPACT VP of Services Brie Rangel shared her experience of being called nice at work as a platform to talk about the importance of owning and mastering your own style as a leader, no matter what other people say.
As a way to uncover those stories for yourself, Leitman includes a number of really helpful exercises in the book, including completing the following statements:
I am _____________________.
I was ____________________.
___________ is the story of my life.
...with as many answers as possible. (When I did these exercises, I devoted an entire 8.5"x11" sheet of paper to my answers to each of those statements.)
If you're looking for fodder for your next blog article for your company, try completing those fill-in-the-blank exercises from a person and work context to see what comes out.
And remember this gem from Leitman as you do it:
"We all have a story about the craziest thing that ever happened to us, but the best stories often come from everyday life."
#2: You Shouldn't Lie, but You Can Alter or Condense Certain Aspects of Your Story for Brevity or Privacy
The best stories are true stories. Period.
That's why in the second section of my Blogging Tips guide, I suggest stories that are clearly hypothetical in nature as a blog introduction formula as a good place to start if you don't have a story to tell of your own -- no one likes a fibber.
However, there are a lot of reasons why someone might want to tell a story but may feel hesitant to share it publicly in a business blog article or piece of longform content:
- What if I upset someone, because the story is about them?
- Should I even be talking about clients?
- There are a lot of extraneous details and characters, and that's going to bore a lot of people who want me to get to the point.
Of course, this is a question that comes up in Leitman's book, because telling stories that may be sensitive in nature is her bread and butter:
"Are there any legitimate ways to keep your story truthful while maintaining the privacy of others in your piece?"
Leitman says you absolutely can.
The key is to not change the actual plot of the story and its outcomes, but you can certainly:
- Change the name and/or gender of a boss, colleague, or client you're referencing to keep their real identity unknown. (You can even call it out, Leitman says. "I can't tell you his name, but for the sake of the story, let's just refer to him as 'Kirk Cameron.'")
- Condense multiple "supporting characters" from your real-life story into a single character for the purposes of keeping the story tight.
- You can get a little fast and loose with timelines, either for the sake of brevity or privacy. You can choose to alter exactly when you say an event took place -- for example, a horrible experience at an unnamed conference that took place in the fall, but you say took place in the spring. Or events that took place over the course of a year, but you say took place over the course of a few weeks, should you choose to discuss the timeline of events at all.
The reasons why we may choose to alter certain details while telling stories will vary.
Heck, you may not be concerned about privacy at all -- it may just be that it's been awhile and you've forgotten certain details. That's totally OK.
"...in order to recount the story to the best of your ability, keep whatever true details in there that you can remember. For dialogue you can't remember, add in what you think someone might have said ... Don't get caught up in the minutiae. If you're telling the story of the time you ate a lot of pancakes and you can't remember exactly how many it was, it's OK to say you ate 'seven' pancakes. No one is going to stand up and interrupt your whole story and yell, 'Liar! It was five!'"
Her golden rule?
"It's not OK to fabricate the plot of your story; it is OK to make the unimportant details more specific."
#3: You Need to Be Sure You're Ready to Tell a Story
Look, sometimes great stories happen to us that we know, at some point, will hold a lot of value as a morality tale or funny anecdote to share in our content.
Often, however, it takes some distance to get to that point.
But that's totally normal. As Leitman puts it, it can take a little decompression time to transform "life's mishaps" into "story magic."
That amount of time could be a single day, a month, or multiple years. It's up to you to realize when you're finally ready to tell a story. But Leitman offers three questions to ask yourself to determine whether or not it's time to let your story cat out of the bag:
- Have you moved on?
"You need to be over the situation, not knee-deep in it." Sometimes the true context of a story, and your ability to tell it effectively, will hinge upon whether or not you can actually reflect on it as if it were a separate time in your life that you've learned from.
- Is it actually over?
Sometimes it might be tempting to talk about something that's happening to you while you're in the middle of it. For instance, Leitman uses the example of a lawyer who wants to open a pottery shop. If that's only just happened, the audience is going to be worried about you and what's going to happen next -- there are too many what ifs in play."There is no ending to this tale," she says. "We want to be inspired because you figured it out on your own ... there should be some closure to the situation."
- Are you able to take a step back and see what the life event was really about?
How many of you have had those moments in life that may have seemed too overwrought, painful, embarrassing, or emotional in the moment, but later on made sense as a chapter in your story? Yes, at that time, you could have shared it in a public format (such as a blog article), but it wasn't until time had passed that you could see what that true "moral of the story" was. This may not be the case all the time, but ask yourself about those big events to determine if you're at the right point to talk about it yet in a way that's valuable to others.
So, Yeah... Buy the Book
To be clear, I've never met Margot Leitman (sadly). Also, no one coerced me or offered me goods, services, or money to share this book with you today.
I'm making this recommendation to you purely because Margot Leitman's book has been nothing short of transformative for me, and I genuinely believe you all can learn a lot from it. Yes, some of the advice she gives is specific to speakers or storytellers (like you'd hear on The Moth), but much of what she teaches in this book transcends form or context.
(By the way, what I've shared here doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of all of the goodness Leitman gives away in this book.)
And given that your ability to establish trust as a business (or individual thought leader) will determine your success with inbound or content marketing in the digital world, you may want to make this small investment in yourself to become a better storyteller.
We may live in a world where buyers are doing their damnedest to avoid talking to someone in sales, but those very same buyers are also demanding more human and authentic experiences and stories from the brands and people they follow.
Wondering where to begin?