Storytelling reminds us we’re all the same.” – Brad Pitt

Raconteur. Long before I knew the meaning of the term, or even used it in a meaningful way, I was one. I’m not exactly sure where I learned the skill, but I had long since learned to spin an anecdote into an amusing story, usually conveying a lesson along the way. If you can captivate an audience with a good story, you can teach them just about anything.

Over the years, I’d seen and experienced things that made for good storytelling. Working on a farm around Vietnam veterans as a teenager exposed me to some unique experiences while  (and an ability to swear that was beyond my years). Later, serving as a firefighter broadened my horizons while adding to my repertoire of stories. But three decades of military service – and exposure to just about every quirky personality type on the planet – added a certain richness and texture to my storytelling that honed my skill to a fine point.

The stories gathered over a career of military service seem to provide an endless supply of life lessons, often really entertaining ones. Not all of them are suitable for a family audience, but those that are convey important messages that impart learning in a way that’s relatable, often humorous, and always meaningful. If a story is worth telling, it’s worth telling well.

Why WE Tell War Stories

We’re a storytelling people. It’s central to our existence, an essential and fundamental part of being human. Storytelling is a part of life: we tell our stories over coffee with a friend, during family gatherings during the holidays, and even in professional settings with our colleagues. They allow us to share information in a memorable way that imparts knowledge in a manner that bonds us across generations. Our stories help us to understand one another, to forge deeper relationships, and to share our experiences with others in a way that spurs sympathetic learning.

Stories help us make sense of the world around us, and war stories form an important niche in a very chaotic part of that world. In a profession that contends with violence on a wholesale scale, war stories serve two purposes: meaning-making – the process of how we construe, understand, and make sense of our experiences – and bonding over those shared experiences. War stories bring us closer together, preserve our oral history, and cast our legacy. Our war stories often revolve around the same subjects, but no matter how many times we share them we can always learn something new. They spark vicarious learning, allowing others to learn from the experiences of another.

How to Tell a Good War Story

There’s a stark difference between just telling a war story and telling a good one. We’ve all felt the pain of a long, meandering war story that is barely relatable and fails to connect. We’ve also experienced the stereotypical storyfeller who feels compelled to “one up” everyone else’s stories, usually with tales of how much tougher things were in their day, how the standards were always higher, and tolerance for slackers practically non-existent.

You don’t want to be a storyfeller.

Telling a good war story is an art. It’s more than just the details and valuable lesson, it’s weaving into a compelling narrative that captures the attention and draws people into the story. In the 2o22 book, How to Tell a Story, from the team at The Moth, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching and promoting the art of storytelling, the authors offer a step-by-step guide on telling a good story.

1. A story is more than a scene or an anecdote.

A good story has three things: a beginning, a middle, and an end. It weaves in tension and some form of transformation. It draws the audience in and keeps them engaged. It stirs the imagination. It’s memorable.

2. Select a meaningful story.

A meaningful story is one that sticks in your mind. We all remember the stories we’d rather forget, and we also remember the stories that resonate. If you’re going to tell a story, you want it to be meaningful.

3. Develop your story.

A story is more than a sequence of events. It’s a tapestry of ideas, feelings, and images that compel a listener to want more. A great storyteller covers an audience in that tapestry and makes them part of the narrative.

4. Figure out the structure.

How you tell the story is just as important as the story itself. It’s always a good idea to start with a good hook and proceed from there. Draw people in and then tell the story.

5. Understand how you’ve changed by the end.

Stories are a journey, and you’re guiding the audience along the path as you weave the tale. When your story ends, it should be clear to everyone that you’re now in a different place. You’ve learned. You’ve grown. You’ve changed.

6. Ask yourself if you’re ready to share the story.

Some stories are deeply personal, potentially rooted in vulnerability or even trauma. Be sure you’re emotionally capable of telling those stories before you start sharing.

7. Practice your story, but don’t memorize it.

You want to be comfortable enough to tell the story from memory but not come across as rehearsed. The more natural the delivery, the more the story comes alive.

8. It’s about the connection, not the storyteller.

Don’t make yourself the hero. Keep it short and on point. And leave the door open for someone else to share their story. That’s where the connection is made.

Now tell your war story. Tell it in your voice, be authentic to yourself. Teach those around you the lessons of your experience. Craft a compelling narrative and take your audience on your journey. Make it count.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.