How to Tell a Story—and Why

What’s the best way to hold your audience’s attention? By telling stories, preferably ones that relate to your topic.

Stories work for a variety of reasons: they require a narrative that keeps listeners engaged; they offer you opportunities to change your voice or volume, which typically happens when you quote someone directly; they make room for humor; and they give you a chance to use a less formal tone.

Anyone can tell a story. Listening to this season’s group of commencement speakers (see our other June 2018 blogs for more,) you’ll hear a range of stories and a variety of techniques. Stories contain sequences of experiences, and we all have those, whether they are about special events, day-to-day happenings, chance encounters, or thunderbolt-like lessons.

It’s important to understand, though, that the situation will dictate the type of story to use. If your goal is to provide personal insights and share details about your background, such as during a graduation speech, stories about your own experiences work very well. But when you’re there to sell a product, convince people to take action, or to teach people how a certain process works, your stories need to help your listeners put themselves in the same situation, allowing them to focus on the lessons they can take away.

Here are some ideas for becoming a better story teller.

Go slowly. Let your story unfold slowly, with a combination of detail, suspense, and humor. Pause often to give your audience time to keep up with you. Don’t go too quickly, and please don’t gloss over details. By taking your time, you’ll raise their sense of anticipation, and get more powerful reactions to your “punch lines.”

Flesh out your characters. The best stories involve characters— teachers, old friends, strange uncles, or people you have met on the street. Tell your audience all about them. Describe how they looked, what they wore, and how they sounded when they spoke. The more you can bring them to life, the more you audience will be able to stay focused.

Feel free to embellish. Remember what they say about fish stories that some people like to tell—the stories get better each time they are told, and the fish get a little bigger, too.

Be clear about the point. If the point of the story isn’t immediately evident, make the connection clear to your listener, using phrases such as “the reason I’m sharing this story is …” or “this story is relevant because…”

Return to it. If your content allows, return to the details of your story as you complete your presentation. You’ll keep your audience connected by reminding them of what you shared, and the lesson of the story itself will have more of a lasting impact.

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David Steuart
Quality Director, The Walsh Group

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