This is another anecdote recorded on the David Frost show.
In it David Niven relates a barrack room story, a crude tale of dressing up as a goat for a fancy ball. It would be easy to miss the trick he pulls in relating this story
The second reason I think Niven is a great storyteller is something he does in the first 30 seconds of this clip. It’s not so much what he says as what he doesn’t say.
Frost introduces the clip by saying he asks Niven “about his early military career.”
So what do I think he’s doing that is so impressive? Just look at the first lines he says that introduce the story.
“I didn’t last long, I was four and a half years a regular soldier and the end of it came, I was pretty bad: there was a moment when, a friend and I went to a fancy dress in malta dressed as goats ..”
He does six things in that short introduction that I think are worth commenting on
1) Check out the non-verbals, tie straightening, preening his hair. These are usually signs of discomfort and the effect is to lower his status. Even though David Frost is leaning forward, really attentively (practically sitting in his lap at one point!) he’s offering signs of reluctance.
2) In one sentence he deftly leaps over the question about his military career. It was nothing it was four years, “the end of it came”, He’s already got to the end.
3) “I was pretty bad”, He’s now delivered the frame, it’s going to be a story about him being bad, and the implication will be, without him directly saying it, that this incident ruined his military career.
4) “a friend and I went to a fancy dress in malta dressed as goats ..”
As he delivers this line his head goes back, and he pauses. This is the bait- and the audience take the hook. Now he’s got their agreement to tell the story.
Because he’s already set the frame: this is a story about him being bad that ended his military career, he can basically use any hook and tell any story he likes about being bad. As long as he tells the story well the audience will laugh and applaud the punchline and they will think that he answered the original question.
5) The slight of hand he has achieved here though, is to deftly deflect you away from the fact that his military career was both enthusiastic and effective. It’s true his training at Sandhurst and first commission ended with him jumping a boat to America but he re-enlisted at the outbreak of world war 2 and served with the legendary Phantom Signals Unit during the invasion of Normandy. Over the subject of his war career he remained tight lipped.
“I will, however, tell you just one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.”
And that is the second reason, Niven is one of my all time favourite storytellers. He might have stolen stories that happened to other people, he might have dressed up things that happened to him for dramatic effect, he might have let you draw your own conclusions in ways that cast him in a flattering light: certainly he enjoyed telling stories about the famous stars he mixed with in the golden age of Hollywood. But he didn’t talk about the war, and he didn’t share the secrets of the bedroom. He had integrity and he had discretion.
And he used a storytelling trick that made sure that his story would always be appreciated …
6) He plays the back end of the goat! He is the butt of the joke, the fall guy, the joker. He is the one who looks ridiculous. By deliberately playing low status he disarms us and entertains us and makes it easier for us to connect with him.
What do you think?