When ‘Everyone is a Storyteller’, How Do You Stand Out?

Radical advice from a Hollywood insider

Image © Adam Westbrook

Everyone is a storyteller, we’re told. But in a world where anyone can tell a story, what do you have to do to stand out? The answer, according to Hollywood story consultant Bobette Buster, is to find the bravery to speak the Truth.

My interview with Bobette Buster starts in an unusual way: for the first five minutes of our conversation she is interviewing me.

“How long have you been in Paris?” she asks. “Why did you move there?” It takes a while for me to take the reigns of the conversation back, and it’s not until our interview is well underway, do I realise that we started that way for a reason.

Because at the heart of Bobette Buster’s approach to storytelling is an ability to listen.

We all recognise a good story well-told but that doesn’t mean we’re all good storytellers.

“Ralph Waldo Emerson said that people tell you what’s on their mind within two or three sentences,” she tells me from London. “They don’t realise it, but whatever’s happening that’s really important will bubble up pretty quickly. So if I just engage someone and just listen to how they’re framing what they’re talking about, I can pretty much, within two or three questions, get them to reveal what’s really on their mind.”

It’s given her a reputation among her clients and students as part storytelling guru, part therapist.

“My belief is that we’re all storytellers and that everyone has a story to tell. It’s really important to see where you are in your own narrative…A lot of my students have had major breakthroughs, personally and psychologically from realising that” she says.

“We all recognise a good story well-told but that doesn’t mean we’re all good storytellers. But we have good stories to tell. I can always sit with someone and draw out their story. And then they’re fascinated with how interesting it was!”

It’s an approach that helps Bobette stand out in a world where everyone is hawking their own “storytelling technique”, something Bobette herself is keen to avoid.

“I always felt that in the screenwriting books — and I’ve read almost all of them — each person had their own formula, their own premise, to separate them from the pack. Screenwriting is the oil gusher opportunity of our age: this idea that if you write the great American screenplay you could make a million dollars. There’s this kind of gold rush mentality about screenwriting.”

Do / Story: How to Tell Your Story so the World Listens

But rather than try to provide a prescriptive formula to the craft of narrative, Bobette’s book “Do Story: How to tell your story so the world listens” comes from a new angle: that we’re all storytellers and that storytelling is something for everyone.

“I really feel that we’re in the age of storytelling and that everyone should recognise that they’re a storyteller and that there are principles to good storytelling.”

“Life is a continuum of threshold experiences where you could make a change in your life or not, or you’re facing a decision to make, or not. Storytelling is about raising an awareness of that ‘aha!’ moment. Obviously when you experience an accident, or a juicy bit of gossip that’s an ‘aha!’ moment, you go ‘oh my God, this thing happened to me, let me tell you about it!’ Or if you have a broken heart, whatever it is, that’s an ‘aha!’ moment: you feel raw, you feel alive you want to share that with someone.

“And mostly I want people to step back and objectify and frame that moment. What is that moment telling them about themselves? There’s a reason why we tell these stories. There’s a reason why you wanted to tell me something important to you today, and I am listening for ‘why’. Why are you telling that story?”

The glue to being human

And what is Bobette’s own story? After a childhood in Kentucky she moved to Hollywood to learn the craft of script development. In an industry flooded with thousands of scripts each year, her talents are sought after, and she has been brought into guide story artists at Pixar, Disney and 20th Century Fox among others.

Her human approach to storytelling makes her ideas important and not just for the movie studios. “Do Story,” published by the people behind the successful Do Lecture series, is a compact and incisive primer for almost anyone — including non-fiction producers. What you really learn is that the universal principles of story exist because they are part of our universal human story.

Confronting fear

“The journey of storytelling is the ultimate journey of connection, our need to have someone hear us and say ‘Oh I understand’ or comfort or to provide an insight. It is the glue to being human” she says.

“The storyteller was absolutely essential in West African traditions and native american traditions because they held the truth, and that was a sacred thing. They carried the stories forward; you were the continuity. Now we put that burden on 24 hour news cycles and the internet, but the storyteller holds the soul and holds a truth that goes forward in time.

Image © Bobette Buster

“I think that my role has become to put people fearlessly in touch with their inner lives. That’s what stories are really about, that’s what movies are really about. It’s the inner life revealed and the fact that each one of us have a fear that blinds us.”

Fear. An uncomfortable word for lots of us. But, Bobette argues, it’s one of the keys to unravelling someone’s story. No matter the subject of your story, or the characters within it, if you can uncover their fears then you can uncover what’s really driving them.

“Every one of us is very savvy at coping with our fears and getting through life and figuring out other mechanisms to avoid facing that fear. Some of the fears can be obvious: flying, snakes, whatever. But the more profound fear is that we don’t want to dare to live our lives. And so that’s what you’re looking to show in in any story and I’m looking to create those ‘aha!’ moments with people, where they suddenly realise they have been missing the whole point of their life. That is the road less travelled. ‘When I face that fear, that is the path I must take.’”

Deep storytelling like this requires a vulnerability that takes bravery to embrace. Because of this, it’s rare. But, in a digital age of non-stop stories, and where ‘everyone is a storyteller’, Bobette is convinced it’s the only way to stand out — in fact, she dedicates a whole chapter of “Do Story” to this very idea.

“There’s this snarky attitude of being super hip that can ultimately be degrading and it makes people less brave about telling their own stories. So the fresh and audacious storyteller who speaks their own truth will pop out, but you have to be willing to break the rules around you to be able to do that.”

“I think you have to believe that what you have to say is something the world needs. That your truth is as important as anyone else’s and that your point of view is necessary. To fearlessly say the thing that will make people uncomfortable. Now that will sometimes be something provocative and controversial but sometimes you make people uncomfortable by speaking a kindness, and I would say what you want to do is be the irritant.

“If you feel that what you’re going to say is going to make the world squeamish and uncomfortable then you’re probably on the right path. And you may not be very popular with people immediately in your circle but that’s the point of the storyteller: to provide the objectivity to the age.”

What happens if you have nothing to say?

Which leads to the difficult question: what happens if you have nothing to say?

“Then something is at work in you” she argues. “It’s simmering, so just be patient and allow it to come forth. Nobody doesn’t have anything to say. Life is happening all the time, it will surface one way or the other.”
It’s a long journey, but ultimately one that really matters.

“We’re in such an emotionally cluttered era and the world is so dense that it’s really hard to find our own perceptions and to get clarity on the truth of why we feel what we feel. I think stories pro.vide that” she says.

As if to prove that point, Bobette turns it around on me, cutting right to the quick.

“I might ask you Adam, why did you feel the need to move to Paris? What has it been like to move place to place month to month, what are you discovering about yourself? Is this a pilgrimage? Sounds like it is, and we have the whole notion that we travel to find ourselves.”

It turns out stories do a lot more than just entertain and inform — if you dare to let them.

“Speak from the truth, speak from the heart and in your gut, when it feels scary, that’s what you should do.”

This interview first appeared in Issue #4 of Inside the Story Magazine.

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity. https://adamwestbrook.substack.com/