If you look at ancient history, the media was comprised of famous verbal storytellers. There was no internet, no television or radio, and certainly no daily newspapers. Power belonged to someone who could hold an audience spellbound by their amazing storytelling abilities.
Times are different now. World events can reach us in less than a second on our smartphones. We could live on a deserted island and still know what was going on in the big wide world.
In spite of this, and perhaps because of it, verbal storytellers are in increasing demand. Nothing will win you more friends and romantic admirers, than a well timed and engagingly told story.
Whether you aspire to spin an ancient yarn like Homer, or tell a funny gag to your colleagues, this article will help you to be the most entertaining person in the room.
Know your audience
Your story must be relevant to your audience. For the purposes of this article, we will imagine that you are telling a funny story to a room full of people.
If you do not understand the culture of the people you are speaking with, you must undertake some research. If you are leaving your country to work in an office in London, you should prepare in advance. I would first recommend reading Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. His book is as relevant today as it was when first published.
When dealing with people from a different country, look up the differences between those from different areas. It would also be a good idea to consider the professions of the people you will be interacting with.
The humour and tone of a story told on a construction site will be quite different from that of a story told in a legal office. However, if you become adept at telling funny stories, you will be able to craft a tale that entertains anyone you come into contact with.
The kind of stories people like
The best funny stories are based on subjects people can relate to: difficulty parking their car, trying to lose weight for a holiday, or the perils of dating. The story must be light in tone. I would avoid subjects such as politics and anything that is sensitive or not politically correct. In general, try to avoid telling funny stories about serious issues.
There are a variety of topics that you can discuss with English people. Celebrity gossip is a popular choice of story; people will discuss the lives of celebrities as if they were members of their own family. Something unusual such as a spooky story will also catch people's attention. This could be a story about a visit to a fortune teller or a strange coincidence.
Television is also a popular discussion topic in England. Like people everywhere in the world, English people love a good drama. Talking about a new television show, such as a crime drama, will keep people busy during their lunch break.
Office talk can sometimes revolve around shopping trends. People like to talk about the price and quality of the food they have bought, and enjoy sharing bargain hunting tips.
When it comes to conversation topics, you will learn best by observation. Start by being the quiet one in the group and study the people around you. What do they like to talk about? What kind of story makes them laugh the most?
It is best to avoid making fun of another person's culture, and to avoid cliches. Japanese people might think that you are mocking them if you make jokes about samurai and members of the yakuza. It might also be irritating for someone to ask them about Japan, and then start talking about geisha and manga.
Try to avoid stereotypical topics when speaking to someone from another culture. Likewise, avoid talking to English people about tea, crumpets, and Mary Poppins.
Be humble and show people that you are human
In England, boastfulness is frowned upon. If you want to win people over, show them your humble side and tell a story that emphasises it. It could be a story of how you dated someone from a different culture and accidentally offended them. Perhaps you made a mistake that you could turn into a funny story. When telling funny stories, try not to boast of your achievements, but play up your shortcomings.
Pack your story full of detail
You can paint a picture in a person's mind by using good descriptive words. Tell them about the sights and sounds of Hong Kong’s streets, or the smell of street food in Delhi, and you will have a captive audience. Try to describe a person you met or a place you visited in great detail. As an example, compare the two paragraphs below and decide which is the most descriptive:
She was a pretty lady that I met at a party in Delhi. We talked a lot, and I had fun.
I pushed my way through a crowded and sweaty dance floor. The music throbbed, and I felt disorientated and wanted to leave. All that changed when I saw her, she had autumnal, dark hair which poured onto her shoulders. From a distance, she smiled at me and I noticed that she stood out from the crowd with her exotic looks and confident posture.
Neither paragraph is a classic piece of writing. In paragraph one we are given no detail to help us imagine the scene. In paragraph two, we are not given all the facts, but can conjure up the scene more easily in our minds. Try to include detail in your story, which is not only relevant but will make your audience feel as if they were there with you.
Use wit not slapstick
When telling funny stories, try to rely on wit rather than slapstick comedy. Clever wit is prized and treasured in England. Think about the words you are using. Is there a way to play on them to make your story funny?
Perhaps you can tell people how you woke up your housemates when you came home late one night. This could be done in a rehearsed sentence. For example, you could tell people:
I crept into the house late that night, with the stealth of an elephant squeezing itself into a washing machine.
That's not such a funny sentence, but I hope it gives you an idea of what I am suggesting.
In England, slapstick comedy is something that is seen, such as on television, rather than spoken about. In a verbal story, your power of wit can make an everyday event into comedy gold. Try to rely less on the spectacle of the story, and focus on your wit in telling your tale.
In your daily life, try to study the mannerisms of the people you are interacting with. Look at a person's body movements and their voice. Is there anything interesting about the way that they speak? Do they walk or move their body in a slightly unusual way?
When telling your funny story, impersonating someone briefly will interest your audience and may even make them laugh.
You should not over do this or tell the whole story in a funny voice while hunching your shoulders. Keep your impression of a person very brief. This will allow you the time to practice the impersonation the night before and to perfect it.
Do not be stupid and impersonate someone with a disability or a medical condition. This will make you look like an idiot and people will find it offensive.
Look for something unusual about the person. Perhaps their voice does not quite fit their image? It could be the huge tough looking doorman who has a kind and gentle voice, or a sweet little dog that barks like a rabid wolf.
Unusual places and people are interesting. If you can bring the essence of the person you met into your story, your audience will be very entertained.
Impersonations of famous people are also good if you can manage it. Keep your impression to under a minute if possible.
I was once at a party where someone impersonated Al Pacino in the movie Scarface. It was entertaining for the first minute, but then this person went on for about ten minutes and ended up emptying a room full of people. Good jokes and stories should not overstay their welcome.
Study your own life
Each day in your life will contain at least one moment on which to base a funny story. Be on the lookout for people and places with which to populate your stories. You should also study yourself. What makes you different to those around you? Are you too kind for the modern world, too busy for the pleasures of life, or quite young and naive in a foreign country?
If you can laugh at yourself, and tell a funny story about it, more and more people will enjoy having you around.
Build up your collection
Work hard on one funny story and perfect it. Try to tell the story to as many people as possible. When you are happy with your story, you should create another story from scratch.
If you have a collection of good quality funny stories, you are creating well-crafted tools with which to expand your social life.
Hero Image by Matthew G (CC BY 2.0)