25 Insanely Great Storytelling Tips
In his book, Beyond Bullet Points, author Cliff Atkinson writes:
“The single most important thing you can do to dramatically improve your presentations is to have a story to tell before you work on your PowerPoint file.”
I couldn’t agree more. Storytelling is the key to persuasive communication.
It’s the glue that plants ideas and binds memories. It’s the best way to ensure that your audience will listen, engage, and remember your message.
Because a good story doesn’t tell the audience what to do. It shows them what they could do; what they could be.
If I had to give just ONE tip, my BEST tip, to anyone who wants to improve their ability to communicate persuasively, it would be this:
LEARN HOW TO TELL GOOD STORIES!
To help you hone your storytelling superpowers, I’ve collected 25 simple, effective tips from the world’s leading experts and most persuasive speakers.
I suggest that you review them ALL, and then choose ONE (or two) to apply to your next pitch or presentation. Then another one. And another…
So that eventually, you’ll be a pro at all of them—which means YOU will be one of the most persuasive speakers in the world!
TIP #1: START WITH YOUR BEST MATERIAL
Your audience is most attentive during the first 10-20 seconds of your presentation. So don’t waste it on boring introductions, redundant “agenda” slides, or half-hearted “thank you, I’m so excited to be here” statements.
Instead, jump right into the story. Or ask a thought-provoking question.
Pretend those first 20 seconds are ALL YOU GET.
TIP #2: CRAFT A KILLER ‘TEASE’
What do soap operas, strippers, and the 11-o’clock news have in common?
That’s right—A KILLER TEASE!
They draw your attention with a short, surprising, suspenseful statement or question that makes you lean in and wonder, “What does (s)he mean by that?” And it works.
TIP #3: ENGAGE THE SENSES
There’s a big difference between telling you I had an amazing pizza for dinner last night and describing it with details like “the square, thin, slightly crisped butter crust had the PERFECT amount of fennel-y pork sausage layered over a blanket of the freshest roma tomatoes and six generous dollops of creamy ricotta cheese.”
When you add sensory details to your stories, your listener’s sensory cortex is activated, which means they’re experiencing the story with you.
So don’t forget to add colors, shapes, sizes, textures, sounds, and smells into your story.
TIP #4: MAKE YOUR AUDIENCE YOUR HERO
Every story has a hero, a villain, and at least one “mentor” who helps to guide or influence the hero along the way.
The best way to ensure your audience connects with your story is to make THEM your hero; which means YOU play the role of “mentor.”
So picture yourself as Yoda; the audience as Luke Skywalker; and the problem you wish to solve as Darth Vader.
And May the Force Be With You.
TIP #5: FUEL THE CONFLICT
Conflict is the fuel in every story. The stronger the conflict, the more invested your audience will be in seeing the hero prevail.
Give extra attention to describing the conflict. Make it powerful, visceral, and REAL. Sprinkle in important details. And most importantly, let it rage on just a bit longer than feels comfortable…
Because an “easy victory” is no victory at all.
TIP #6: USE CONTRAST
Contrast keeps your audience engaged and wondering, “What will happen next?” It also gets neurotransmitters like dopamine pumping through your audience’s brains.
Keep the dopamine floodgates open by contrasting moments of pain with gain; anxiety with comfort; darkness with light.
TIP #7: USE ANALOGIES & METAPHORS
Telling your audience that “70 million Americans live every day with heart disease,” is a quick way to trigger overwhelm and “shut down.”
But if you say, “Look at the three people closest to you. Odds are that one of the four of you has heart disease—and that it will kill you…” Now you’ve got their attention.
Analogies and metaphors help to contextualize data and provide a connection point that your audience can relate to more easily.
TIP #8: DIALOGUE > NARRATIVE
Dialogue fuels stories and makes them sound and feel like real experiences. It draws your audience in and brings characters to life.
Good dialogue is short, sharp, and organic—meaning it literally sounds like the people who are saying it.
P.S. If you’re terrible with accents and impressions (like I am), don’t worry—you can still make dialogue work by altering vocal pace, tone, and volume.
TIP #9: BE ORIGINAL
There’s no faster way to lose your audience than to hit ‘em with a boring—and pointless—agenda slide, followed by a few overused cliches and “me too” stories.
So skip the “sports team” metaphor (it’s been done), and the “make lemons out of lemonade” B.S., and instead give your audience something FRESH.
TIP #10: KILL YOUR DARLINGS
In his memoir, author Stephen King suggests that writers kill their darlings “even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart.”
His metaphor may be a tad edgy, but the suggestion is pure gold.
The vast majority of presentations not only bury the lead—they bury the MEAT. And the best way to solve that problem is to cut, cut, cut, like a manic barber… until you’ve removed all of the excess.
P.S. The first place I suggest cutting is in your opening statement. You’ll be amazed at how much more powerful it will be if you chop off the first paragraph (or two).
TIP #11: USE YOUR VOICE
Your voice has three tools: pitch (high or low), pace (fast or slow), and volume (loud or soft). I highly recommend that you learn to use all three!
Specifically: bring your volume up and your pace and pitch DOWN when emphasizing a part of your story. Bring your volume way down just before a dramatic pause, so your audience is compelled to lean in.
TIP #12: SLOW THE F**K DOWN
The vast majority of speakers suffer from what I call “verbal tailgating”—aka speaking in an uninterrupted stream of words at a rapid pace. For many of us, this is less “personal style” and more “pure adrenaline,” but regardless—it’s an express ticket to rear-ending your audience (so to speak) by either putting them to sleep or saying something stupid.
It is okay to have a moment of silence. It is okay to pause, breathe—even THINK—before you continue. So resist the urge to turn on the verbal firehose, and just slow the f**k down.
TIP #13: REPEAT YOURSELF
There’s a reason why political campaigns, ad campaigns, and professional speakers have a short “slogan” or rally cry that they repeat: because IT STICKS.
Your audience has a lot on their minds, and you’ve got a lot of competition for their mental attention. Help them remember your key point by boiling it down to a short, simple phrase—and repeating it (strategically) at least five times.
TIP #14: CHOOSE POWER WORDS
“A man is not very tired—he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad—use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys: to woo women—and in that endeavor, laziness will not do.” —Dead Poets Society
Your goal may not be to “woo women,” but the principles of choosing powerful, evocative language still holds.
Skip the wishy-washy words and phrases; the “kind of’s” and the “just a little’s.” Trade them in for POWER WORDS that are dense with meaning and emotion.
TIP #15: LEARN TO LOVE ALLITERATION
al·lit·er·a·tion (noun): the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words.
Alliteration is a beautiful thing. It has a musical quality that helps our brains better hear and remember the message behind them. USE IT to help your key message stick.
TIP #16: DISPLAY GENUINE DELIGHT
Your ability to persuade your audience depends not only on what you say but on how you say it. If your voice, facial expression or body language says, “I’m bored,” your audience will be too—even if your story is packed with action and adventure.
Err on the side of DELIGHT. Smile. Convey genuine enthusiasm… or whatever emotion you ultimately want them to feel.
TIP #17: SAY IT WITH CONVICTION
It’s hard to be persuasive when you end your sentences with a question-mark? It’s easier to be persuasive when you end your sentences with a period. Or an exclamation mark!
These subtle cues in your delivery make all the difference in how your story is perceived and remembered. Skip the up-talk and say it like you mean it.
TIP #18: BUILD SUSPENSE
Master storytellers use suspense to keep their listeners on the edge of their seats. They drop hints, ask questions, and resist the urge to reveal the full picture until much, much later than you’d expect.
How can you build suspense in YOUR story?
TIP #19: INVOKE IMAGINATION
“Imagine if…” is a powerful phrase for drawing your audience into your story. It prompts them to picture themselves in the story—to feel the pain, to thirst for resolution, and to root for the hero’s victory.
Paint a vivid picture of the imagined future that you want your audience to realize… and then show them the path to make it real.
TIP #20: ANTICIPATE THE QUESTION
A great story sparks emotion—and questions. A Master Storyteller anticipates the questions their listeners might have and weaves them into the fabric of the story itself.
What questions is your audience likely to ask?
Put yourself in their shoes. BE them for a few minutes. Then listen to the questions that arise…
TIP #21: SKIP THE RECAP
Resist the urge to simply “recap” what you just told your audience. Give them (and yourself) more credit. If your story was powerful and engaging, they won’t need a recap.
Trade that dusty, old thing in for a memorable takeaway message instead.
Keep it short, free of wishy-washy words, and directly relevant to the action you want them to take.
TIP #22: TAKE YOUR STORY FOR A TEST DRIVE
Before you tell your story on stage or at a high-stakes meeting, take it for a “test drive” in a more casual setting. Use your friends and family’s reaction as a litmus test to gauge how clear, compelling, and memorable it actually is.
P.S. If you have friends who don’t mind telling the emperor that he has no clothes, then ask for honest feedback. And really listen to it.
TIP #23: LEAVE YOUR AUDIENCE ON A HIGH NOTE
Everybody loves to see the hero WIN. Regardless of what your core message is—whether it’s uplifting or disconcerting—close your story on a high note.
TIP #24: GET PERSONAL
The more your audience can relate to YOU, the more rapport you’ll build and the more persuasive you will be.
If possible, share a personal story. How did YOU overcome the problem that your story highlights? How have YOU suffered the same pain that your hero must endure?
TIP #25: PRACTICE!!!
There is no shortcut to excellence—which is why practicing your delivery is essential to success.
Personally, I like to practice “out loud” to an invisible audience (at first), then in front of a video camera (usually my iPhone or laptop) so that I can SEE and HEAR the weak spots in my delivery.
Then practice AGAIN. AND AGAIN. And again.
Because practice truly does make perfect.
I cover all of these tips in-depth in my ACE the PITCH course. To learn more go to: https://www.udemy.com/course/ace-the-pitch/