At last, something EVERYONE can relate to … because we all do it, pretty much every day. What you ask? It’s telling someone else’s story.
We do it with friends and family to revel in memorable moments from the past, usually sharing an embarrassing tale from your own or someone else’s perspective/point of view. Doesn’t matter if the teller was actually there or not. Hearsay is not only acceptable, its appreciated when telling someone else’s story. Mostly good natured, these stories often recall fun times, unique encounters, awkward reactions, or socially challenging situations. While embarrassment may be the emotional driver during the tale, many times it’s the resolution – no matter how mortifying or shameful – that gives the story its true power and payoff. That’s when everyone listening shifts from bated breath to raucous laughter. All share in the collective recall or revel in the reveal when hearing it for the first time.
We also do it with colleagues at work – much in the same way – regaling tales of past performance (or lack thereof), spectacular slip-ups, or sharing on-the-job secrets and tricks of the trade that live in infamy or renown depending on your POV. They don’t have to be work-related either. I still tell a Disney colleague’s story from back in the day when he had both sets of grandparents staying with them over the holidays visiting their young child. A few days after they all left to return home, the phone rang (yes, a landline, but I’m dating the story). Before he or his wife could answer it, their young child yelled from inside his room while playing, “It’s the f’ing phone!” Evidently, he had picked up the colorful phrase from one of the grandparents the week prior. It took all the strength he and his wife could muster to not laugh out loud. After a few precarious days trying not to respond in any way that would signal what he was actually saying whenever the phone rang, their child eventually forgot about it and the household happily moved on.
See! There, I just did it. Told someone else’s story. Hope you liked it; still makes me laugh. But there’s also an art to telling someone else’s story I could not deliver in the above prose. The way the original grandparent said it with a rising scale of pitch and passive aggressive determination for someone else to answer that phone and how it was emulated perfectly by the young boy. Many times when telling someone else’s story, there’s some pantomime and mimicry necessary to deliver the moment, the exchange, or their response with great effect. These micro-scenes are often the actual punchline of the story, so identifying them and polishing their delivery will enhance your telling of someone else’s story every time.
We also do it with strangers. “I have a friend who…”, “My buddy once…”, “There was this time…”, and so on. The sharing of someone else’s story is a way we often find commonality and make a connection with others we do not know well or have just met. It provides a foil that protects our own ego and vanity by not having to reveal something embarrassing about ourselves, but instead about someone else. Social shaming in the third person from afar, if you will, when not well-intentioned or coming from a place of fondness. “Bless his/her heart.” Many times, the telling of someone else’s story happens right after the introductions and small talk are done. There’s another art to it besides that killer imitation at the denouement of the story, and that is the timing of when to tell it in the first place. You have to wait the room out, wait your turn, capture everyone’s attention and hold onto it during the telling. Keep it short and on point. If there’s a necessary tangent, acknowledge it with a promise to return back to the tale and that it has valuable context. Shorter the better, as the longer it takes to tell the story, the greater the anticipation of your audience for the wallop of the punchline. And it better payoff, or else!
There are also other ways of telling someone else’s story that are not so adoring like plagiarism or taking credit for someone else’ work. Maybe we leave those for another time, and get back to the one’s that make us laugh and bond rather than get infuriated or frustrated. But whether well-intentioned of not, the telling of someone else’s story all boils down to our inherent, ancestral, foundational origins of needing to tell, share, and hear stories as a species. We are storytelling creatures. It is not something we do, it’s how we exist and make sense of all that is around us. I’m sure that dolphins and whales do it, too. But that’s more of a hunch on my part than proven fact – though I have been binging NatGeo this summer until football starts. I wonder how a cetacean’s telling of someone else’s story might go…