Storytelling Techniques: What Will Help Me Stand Out?
Gavin Edwards is a three-time New York Times-bestselling author and public speaker. Throughout his career, he has written twelve books and made appearances on NBC’s Today show, VH1’s Behind the Music, and NPR’s All Things Considered. The common thread between Gavin’s praised writing and skilled public speaking is his ability to tell a story in an effective and engaging way. He shared his thoughts with us on his career, his best storytelling techniques, and information about his most recent book, Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever.
What inspired you to become a writer? What is your favorite part about writing?
I've been a reader as long as I can remember, and I've been a writer almost as long as that. Being able to put words together in a sentence or a paragraph and have them provoke laughter, or make people reconsider their beliefs, or describe the taste of salty caramel ice cream, still seems like a magic trick to me.
You’ve made a career out of telling the stories of various figures, not unlike some other folks we’ve spoken with about storytelling techniques, including Why I Run author Kate Childs Graham. How do you choose who to write about? Is there something about their lives that particularly stands out to you or makes their stories notable?
I've written hundreds of profiles of various people, and sometimes the calculus is as simple as "hey, I like their new single" or "an editor asked me if I can get on a plane to Indiana tomorrow." But in recent years, I've been writing biographies of people where I try not just to outline the broad sweep of their lives, but to study how they act in the world and why. (Those books are The Tao of Bill Murray: Real-Life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment, and Party-Crashing; The World According to Tom Hanks: The Life, the Obsessions, the Good Deeds of America's Most Decent Guy; and Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever.)
When thinking about performers who worked well in this format and performers who didn't—and who I wanted to spend a year of my life thinking about—I realized that for the books to work, they had to be about people who had a core set of beliefs that manifested themselves not just in the work they did in film or TV, but in how they led their everyday lives. So I'm attracted to people with strongly held philosophies: they can be very different (Bill Murray believes in the value of spontaneity and making sure not to sleepwalk through life, while Fred Rogers believed in kindness and the welfare of children), so long as I feel that promulgating their credos will help make the world a better place.
Many political candidates use storytelling techniques in their speeches, and we’re always trying to help our readers perfect the art and science of speechwriting. What are three pieces of advice you would give to folks who want to tell their personal stories to a larger audience? How do they make themselves stand out?
I think the cornerstone of using personal stories in politics has to be telling the truth. It's a beautiful thing when a story from your own life resonates on a larger scale and not only explains who you are and what you believe in, but echoes with the people (hopefully registered voters, in this case) whom you're speaking to. Because real life is messy, I can understand the temptation to shave off the corners and make something complicated work better as a straightforward anecdote. But there's nothing worse for a listener than finding out somebody you thought you were connecting with actually was faking the funk.
How have you seen political candidates running for office use storytelling techniques to engage their constituents? Do you have any favorite examples?
I've been particularly interested in this election cycle by the speeches of Elizabeth Warren, who not only uses her personal story as a way to connect with crowds, but skillfully advocates for building a more robust social infrastructure in American society, even when that's not the primary point that she's making.
Have you ever thought of writing about some of the more “viral” politicians — AOC, Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar (who, by the way, is a master of Twitter memes)? Is there a reason that you haven’t ventured into the world of politicians yet when it comes to your writing?
I certainly follow American politics, possibly more than is good for my mental health—but the world is a fascinating place, and I don't get to write about many subjects that interest me! I'm always trying to squeeze in as many shorter pieces as I can between longer book projects, and sometimes those choices are determined by what editors commission from me.
Tell us about your inspiration for writing your latest book, Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever? Did you watch his show?
As a child, I did indeed watch Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: every day, on my family's ugly green couch, hanging on his every word, treasuring every transition to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. And then, like many people, I got a little older and moved on and forgot just how much Fred Rogers meant to me and how much his expression of care (even through the television set) had helped me find a place in the world when I was young.
It was Tom Hanks who led me back to Fred Rogers: after my book on Hanks came out, he announced that he would be starring in It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and I realized that I wanted nothing more than to spend some time reacquainting myself with the wisdom of Mister Rogers. I found it extremely rewarding—and if the recent resurgence of interest in Mister Rogers makes the world even 3% more like the Neighborhood, we'll all be better off for it.
Today’s politics is riddled with hate and often personal attacks between candidates or politicians. What can we learn, if anything, from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when it comes to the political realm?
Fred Rogers was a big believer in communication and empathy: he especially remembered what it was like to be an awkward, unhappy child, and that gave him a particular connection with all children. But he also knew those children grew up to be adults, and if he met somebody ill-tempered or unpleasant, he always tried to consider the world from their perspective—often, his patience and his gentle manner would bridge the gap.
The center seems to have collapsed in American politics in recent years—and the notion of a political center may have been a Potemkin village for quite some time, propped up by a class of well-meaning centrist pundits. But even if the best policies aren't always found in the middle of the road, it's good to remember that people who don't agree with you politically are still human beings, filled with the capacity for love and goodness. That knowledge is especially hard to accept in these fraught and venomous times, and it may not lead to political progress on a larger scale—but it can, at the very least, improve your immediate surroundings.
BONUS: What books have you read lately that you would recommend?
Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror (a gripping history of the 14th century), Jillian Tamaki & Mariko Tamaki's This One Summer (a beautifully nuanced graphic novel about two girls on the edge of adolescence), Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (short and dark and funny, a poison pill of a novel).
A big thank you to Gavin Edwards for participating in this week’s 7 Questions and sharing some storytelling techniques with us!
Want to read more on storytelling techniques? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Writing Your Stump Speech to find out why and how you should use storytelling in a campaign!