Storytelling, Lessons from Gustav Klimt

Christopher Witt —  July 30, 2012

Klimt and StorytellingThe art and artistry of Gustav Klimt, the artist best known for “The Kiss,” has lessons for those of us who consider ourselves storytellers.

That thought came to me this weekend, because I saw a wonderful exhibit at the Getty Center in LA, titled “Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line,” and I heard a speech built around a not so wonderfully told story.

First, the exhibit. Over a hundred drawings are on display. They cover Klimt’s career from start to finish, during which time he produced thousands upon thousands of drawings. He drew for several reasons: to practice his art (even to his last days), to experiment (focusing less on formal realism and more on emotionalism), and to prepare meticulously for his paintings.

Second, the speech. It was 14 minutes long. (I always time speeches, my own and other people’s.) And the story was 6 minutes long, almost half the length of the speech. Now, I like story-speeches…as long as the story is a good one and it’s well told, and the speech makes good use of it. This one didn’t work so well. It isn’t that the story was too long. It’s that the truth of the story — the point the speaker wanted to make — was buried in too much detail and was, as a result, somewhat of a muddle.

Which brings me to my reflections about what Klimt’s art and artistry can teach us about stories and storytelling.

First, practice.

The only way to master an art — and storytelling is an art — is by practicing it over and over and over again. Klimt produced drawings almost every day. And he didn’t stop practicing when he had mastered the art.

If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don’t practice for three days, the world knows it.” – Vladimir Horowitz, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century

Second, know where to focus. It the drawing above, Klimt drew the woman’s head in great detail — the hair and face and, especially, the eyes — because that’s where he wanted to focus the viewer’s attention.

The same goes for a story. Storytellers — the good ones, at least — emphasize the essentials: character, conflict, and change. Most beginners — like the speaker I heard this weekend — don’t know how to direct the listener’s attention to what matters. They provide extraneous details and unnecessary explanations.

Third, know what to eliminate. Look again at the drawing above. The woman’s entire upper body is conveyed fully — or as fully as necessary — in no more than 15 or 20 lines.

Good storytelling knows how to sketch in supporting material, providing the least amount of detail needed to create the action and the world of the story. You don’t need to be precise about when the story is set, for example, if a simple “last year” or “when I was in high school” or “once upon a time” will do, unless, of course, the point of the story concerns its time frame. Provide the right detail, eliminating as much as possible, and let your listeners fill in the detail.

The only way you’ll know where to focus and what to eliminate while telling a story is — and this brings me full circle — to practice.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.