Make Your Speech Unforgettable Through Storytelling

You’re doing a presentation, so you should start with the facts you want to get across right? Wrong! A good public speaker takes their audience on a journey, leaving them feeling inspired, motivated and completely on board with your message. But structuring your speech to get your ideas across and keep your audience engaged all the way through to the end can be tricky.  Experienced public speakers tell stories to get their point across.  They do this because humans are hardwired for stories. They love heroes, journeys, suspense, surprises, layers and happy endings.

Why Is Storytelling Important?

Before we talk about the basic building blocks of a story, let’s take a step back and briefly talk about why storytelling is so powerful. Humans have an instinctive predilection for stories. Think about it, Gurg the caveman hunts the big wooly mammoth and he returns to tell his story by painting pictures on the cave walls. Today, Claire, comes back from a big night out at the bars and shares her story by posting gossip and photos on her Facebook wall.

We all tell stories. We tell stories of romantic love. We tell stories about the challenges we face. We tell stories that explain how we got that distinctive scar on our knee.

If you’re trying to inform, persuade, motivate, or entertain, you need to incorporate stories. That means every time you speak, you should think about how to enhance your message with stories.

Stories Connect People

Stories connect people. Stories promote social cohesion, convey complex meaning, and communicate common values and rules. It’s how we learn from each others experiences. More importantly, stories provide a rich context for learning, which means we’re better able to remember a story’s ideas and act on them or share them with others. In fact, it is now understood that people accept ideas more readily when presented as a story rather than when presented as facts for analysis.

So basically what I’m suggesting is this: if you’re trying to inform, persuade, motivate, or entertain, you need to incorporate stories into your speech. And this means, every time you speak, you should think about how to enhance your message with stories.

So, What Is A Story?

It seems that many people struggle with creating and telling stories. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because they think storytelling is more challenging than it really is.

Stories are just a sequence of actions or events that lead to a finale, conclusion or outcome. Ira Glass, who is a master storyteller and the host of NPR’s This American Life, says a story is a person saying, “This happened, and that led to this next thing, and this next thing and so on; one thing following another. And some things in the sequence can be: then that made me think of this, and that made me say this.”

The Plot

Putting actions or events into a sequence that leads to a conclusion or outcome is a story. It really is that simple. And using stories to communicate your message make listening to what you have to say more interesting. Last week I could have said, “I saw Slumdog Millionaire.” Instead, I explained a sequence of actions: my wife making a suggestion, me needing to do work, but ultimately deciding to go to the movie anyway and thoroughly enjoying it in the process.

So did you notice how I worked in that minor internal conflict? Many times stories are created by an internal or external struggle between opposing forces. In Slumdog Millionaire, the main character is torn between his sense of loyalty to his brother and his love for a girl.

The Setting

Usually a story begins by establishing the setting. Slumdog Millionaire starts with images of present day slums in Mumbai, India. This tells us where and when the actions take place. The purpose is to engage the audience or transport them directly into the story. Research suggests that the closer our prior experiences and knowledge are to the story, the more we’ll be engaged.

So what does this mean for everyday public speakers, such as the people who tell stories at the dinner table, at parties, during interviews, or maybe even during work presentations? It means you need to establish a setting, one that the audience can easily relate to.

For example, you might say “At school last week” or “As I was driving home from work” or “Two years ago when I was living in New York city”.  Or if you want to add a touch of humour you could lead with, “last Saturday afternoon when I was supposed to be finalising my presentation…”

The Characters

Once the setting has been established you need characters to make the story happen. It’s the characters that interact in the setting, perform the actions, and make decisions. You can develop characters by using dialogue and actions. By incorporating dialogue into the story, the listener learns about the character, not only by what they say, but how they say it. The character’s actions, even more than the words, define the character.

For purposes of everyday storytelling, always include dialogue and incorporate actions. For example in my personal story last week, I included the dialogue between my wife and myself. I also included my decision to procrastinate. Again, I could have just said, “I saw Slumdog Millionaire last weekend;” instead, the dialogue and the action of my decision make the story more interesting. It doesn’t matter if you only have one character, you can still have dialogue by sharing inner thoughts. For example, last week I thought to myself, “Wow, what a great movie”.

The Details

Finally, it’s the juicy details that engage listeners and bring your stories to life. Of course, the details need to be relevant. You also need to balance the amount of detail with the time you have.

Everyday stories tend to be short, so choose specific, descriptive verbs and adjectives. For example, saying “She bounded across the room giggling with delight” instead of, “She went across the room,” gives your listeners much more insight into the character. And be sure to only include details that directly impact your overall story. Otherwise you’ll leave your audience wondering why you bothered telling them that detail.

To hear how details significantly enhance a story, listen to or read about examples from master storytellers.  A great book that gives insights into the art of story telling is Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio by Jessica Abel (with the forward written by Ira Glass).

And don’t be afraid to turn personal experiences into stories for your presentations. It’s important that you remember that experiences don’t automatically equate to stories, it’s how you relate them that does. Sharing such experiences innevitably requires you to be willing to talk publicly about what are essentially private events. This requires a leap of both faith and imagination, however once you have taken the initial plunge you wil find that you quickly become comfortable doing so. After you become comfortable sharing personal stories, you can begin to include your observations of other people’s behavior and then move on to paraphrasing and adapting fables, parables, fairy tales, literature and urban legends. You will quickly build a repertoire of narratives that you will be able to adapt to complement and enhance presentations on a surprisingly wide range of topics.

In summary, I strongly encourage you to enhance your messages with stories. Always start by briefly establishing a setting. Then introduce the characters through dialogue. Finally, describe the specific details of the action and decisions of the characters using descriptive verbs and adjectives. And, where you can, incorporate personal stories into your speech.  You’ll generally find the response to be more positive and your audience will buy more strongly into your message.

Last but not least, learn from the example below.  You should be good at selling an idea, however you should also know when to stop selling:

A little boy came crying to his father with the news that his turtle had died. His father looked at the dead turtle in his son’s hand and thought fast. “I know,” he said, “we’ll invite some of your friends over and we’ll have a big funeral. We’ll dig a little grave in the backyard and make a little coffin, and we’ll have a parade. I’ll speak some words over dead Herkimer there and….” About that time, the father noticed that the turtle was moving. “Hey, son, look! Your turtle isn’t dead after all!” The boy looked at the now animated creature, then looked at this dad with a sly grin and said, “Let’s kill him!”

Make stories a regular part of your speaking repertoire. In doing so, you will insure variety in delivery and more attentive audiences.

If you’re looking for other tips to improve your public speaking, why not read my Top 3 Books To Read Before Your Next Speech?

Also, if you’re after a short online course in public speaking, I cannot recommend ed2go’s online public speaking courses enough.  I’ll be posting  review of their online courses in public speaking very soon.




10 Comments Add yours

  1. Very interesting read, thanks very much!
    Just wanted to draw your attention to a small mistake you made: in the fifth line you wrote “pubic speakers” instead of public speakers. It gave the article an interesting tweak 🙂


    1. Thank you so much for highlighting this. I’ve fixed the typo. 🙂


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