How to Be a Good StorytellerOnce upon a time, a dangerous criminal was captured by a king. He was tried for his crimes and given two choices: death by hanging or passage through a large door with no information about what’s on the other side. The criminal pointed at the rope.

As a noose was slipped around his neck, the criminal asked, “What’s behind that door?”

“Freedom,” replied the king, “but it seems most people are so afraid of the unknown that they immediately take the rope.”

You don’t expect to hear “And they all lived happily ever after” at the end of this story. You do expect the story to have significance.

As an effective storyteller, a story must lead to a deeper, more meaningful message for your listeners or the point is lost. To capture and hold the interest of your audience, remember these fundamental storytelling tips:

  1. The story must connect to the purpose of your presentation.
  2. The story must connect to your listeners’ experiences.
  3. The story must invite listeners to connect and find value in their own stories.

My first presentation as a professional speaker was about core values. 

“We know you can talk about the topic, but I was in the audience during one of your presentations about 10 years ago,” said the conference planner. “Speak from your heart. Tell your story.”

I smiled. And I was terrified.  Have you ever hoped your facial expressions and body language didn’t reflect your apprehensions?  I was prepared to deliver an academic presentation about values and choices.  I was not prepared to reveal personal information about myself.

I found the courage to pass through the door of unfamiliar territory shared my experiences with depression.  I revealed how ashamed and afraid I felt when I first asked for help.  Although the thought of talking about my personal experiences was terrifying because I did not want to appear weak or broken in front of my listeners, it also provided an opportunity to connect the story with the purpose of the presentation: aligning one’s life purpose with one’s core values

Courage is one of my core values.  Asking for help took courage.  Sharing my experiences with others demanded a lot more courage.

I felt as if a noose was around my neck when I stepped to the podium to share my story. Had I not connected my experience to the purpose of the presentation, the audience would ask themselves, “Why is she telling us about this?” (or “Why does she think we care?”).

When you share your story, you sometimes straddle a very thin line between personal connection with your audience and providing too much information. The purpose of telling your story is not to focus attention upon yourself. The purpose of your story is to invite your audience to discover their own story in your experience.

“Stories always have to land on the point that you’re teaching,” insists popular motivational speaker Lisa Nichols. “Weave the message inside of the story. A good story will drive listeners to action.”

Secondly, the story must connect to your listeners’ experiences. You can inspire personal transformation within your story. You cannot Google-download transformation; it must come from deep within your authentic self.

Rick Segel is a sales expert and author of Retail Business Kit For Dummies. At a conference in England, Rick heard a speaker give a powerful presentation packed with incredible stories. The speech he heard was the same speech, word for word, delivered by the winner of the International Toastmasters contest that same year. The award-winning speech was posted on YouTube and seen by more than 10,000 viewers.

Walk your talk … not someone else’s talk. Tell your own stories.

We live in a technological age. It’s easy to take credit for someone else’s story – and easier than you think to get caught in a tangled net of plagiarism. Telling someone else’s stories and claiming them as your own will tarnish your reputation as a storyteller. Avoid legal battles of copyright violations. Believe in the strength and power of your own experiences.

Finally, your story must invite listeners to connect and find value in their own stories. Your audience must be able to relate to your experiences – or relate to the feelings you share as you describe your experiences. I can gauge if my questions or stories connect listeners with their own stories by watching their body language. If they’re nodding or laughing, they’re usually connecting.

For example, I shared the following experience when I was asked to speak at a corporate conference about marketing strategies, hidden agenda, and authenticity:

During a session break, I asked a young man about his iPad. I explained I wanted to purchase one.

He asked what kind of car I drove.

“A Toyota Scion,” I replied, confused but eager to learn more about iPads.

“Would you recommend a Scion to me?” he asked.

“Of course,” I answered, “but …”

“But you don’t know what my automobile needs are,” he replied.

He scolded me for not asking specific questions about his needs first before making a recommendation. He handed me his business card and offered to be my marketing coach. For a price.

I felt angry and told him if I needed his services, I’d ask for them. 

As I turned away, a woman behind me handed me her business card.

“Hi, my name is Lauren,” she said. “I’m a business coach.”

“Thank you very much,” I curtly replied, “but I don’t need a business coach.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she quickly replied. “I heard you speak a couple of weeks ago about core values and depression. I just wanted to let you know your words changed my life.”

Discover "How to Be a Good Storyteller"I apologized and thanked her for lessons she taught me about patience, jumping to conclusions, and living in alignment with my core values. As I retold the story at the conference, I could tell by the facial expressions of my audience that they shared my pain. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel embarrassed.

Lauren taught me a a valuable lesson about living – and speaking – in alignment with the values I embraced.

Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” The art of storytelling provides listeners with meaningful opportunities to join you on your journey. The story invites us into that magical, pivotal place where we experience intimacy – and it is within those precious moments of the story where you and I are transformed.

What experiences from your life can become great stories?


Share your experiences with powerful suggestions to Craft a Story People Want to Hear.

Use these 8 Powerful Writing Tips from 8 Powerful Authors.

Move beyond feeling stuck. Transform Writer’s Block into Awesomeness.

Read powerful storytelling experiences from urban students in Voices in the City School.

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