How to Tell a Story That Matters

Public speaking is all about taking your audience on a journey, and the best way to do that is with storytelling.

Storytelling has been around since the beginning of time. It’s how we relay information, share our thoughts, and deliver insight. Good stories are a highly effective way of communicating with an audience and making a connection with people. Because humans are hardwired for stories, they love heroes, adventure, surprises, and happy endings.

And people remember stories because they give meaning, they have a structure, and they stir up emotions. You probably remember most of the fairytales you were told as a child. Why? Because they were exciting and vivid—two things that make a story memorable.

All Good Stories Have a Hero

Every good story has a hero at the center of it, whether real or imagined. Sometimes, you’re the hero in the story. Sometimes the hero saved you or someone you know.

Sometimes the hero is famous, sometimes the hero is not. Oftentimes it’s the everyday heroes—the ones you don’t hear about—that make the greatest stories. These are the people audiences relate to: The guy who beat the odds despite his rocky start in life; the woman who scraped together the money she needed to start a bare-bones business and turned it into a multi-million-dollar franchise.

Using a hero story in your presentation adds excitement. Telling the hero’s story allows your audience to make a connection between them and the hero.

How to Tell A Story With The Mountain Structure

When you use the mountain structure for your presentation, you plan the highs and lows of the story—the parts where tension will be at its highest or lowest.

All good stories have a certain element of suspense, and that helps keep your audience enthralled. It’s a good idea to start your stories at the highest point of drama, because it grabs your audience’s attention right from the start, and we all know how important it is to have a strong opening.

Think of your presentation like a TV drama episode: The beginning of each episode is intended to reel you in, to hook you so you keep watching. The story will have its ups and downs until it ultimately ends with a resolution or, sometimes, a cliffhanger.

Your story can end the same way. It may be resolved by the end—showing your audience how the obstacles in the story were overcome—or it may end with a cliffhanger that forces your listeners to put some thought into how the story might end, or what they can do to give the story the ending it deserves.

How Many Nested Loops Do You Get Caught In?

How many times has someone started to tell you a story, only to pause half-way through to tell a back-story to make the first story make sense? That’s an example of a nested loop in storytelling.

Why should you use this technique in public speaking? In some cases, using the nested loop technique is a way to add some humor to your presentation.

If the material you’re presenting is complicated or grim, you have to find a way to lighten it occasionally to keep your listeners’ attention. That’s when you might hear someone add a “funny side note” through a related story to give the audience a bit of relief.

A nested loop also allows you to elaborate on the core message by sharing other relevant information. It can be a tricky technique to incorporate, but it’s very useful.

Good Stories Start in Crisis

A storytelling technique that I find audiences respond to is starting from a point of crisis or in the midst of a drama, and then moving back to trace the steps leading up to that point. Again, this storytelling method is common in TV and movies because it throws the audience straight into the action from the very first moment.

When you start a story at the highest point of drama, your audience is engaged from the moment you open your mouth to speak. The trick is to place your listeners right in the center of the action without giving too much away too early, so they want to keep listening. Give them just enough information to spark their curiosity and keep them hooked on the story.

Predictability is Boring

Even if your audience knows how a story ends, it doesn’t mean the story has to be predictable.

Predictability is boring. If the story your telling follows the same path as every other story being told, there’s not much point in listening. Rags to riches stories are a dime a dozen: Person comes from a poor family, works hard, finds success. The end.

Give your audience something they can’t predict. One way to do this is with what’s called a false start. It’s telling a story that seems predictable at first, then goes in a completely different direction to end up somewhere the audience would never expect. You lure your listeners into a false sense of security only to shock them when you turn the tables.

This is a great speaking technique when you want to tell your audience about your trial and triumphs. They may already know how the story ends (that you ultimately succeeded), but letting them know how you failed along the way is what will inspire them. We all need to hear how others have failed from time to time. It makes people feel connected to you when they hear bad things happen to everyone.

Public Speaking Tips for Storytelling

Whether you realize it or not, storytelling is one of the biggest components of everyday communication, at work, at home, and at play. It’s used orally and visually; it’s used verbally and non-verbally. It’s one of the single greatest public speaking tools you can use to connect with your audience.

We’re often asked how to tell a story that audiences will relate to, and the answer is always the same: Tell them your story. Share your experiences. Audiences relate to people who are relatable, and everyone has a story that others will relate to.

Your failures, your missteps, your fumbles along the way are perfect blocks to build a story that listeners will want to hear because it gives them hope they can achieve the same level of success.

Which storytelling techniques do you use and find the most effective in your presentations? Tell us about it in the Comments section or bring the conversation over to us on Facebook or Twitter!