5 Ways to Become a Better Storyteller

“Great stories tell us something about what it means to be human.”
—Jenn Maer, IDEO Design Director

In our most recent Creative Confidence Series chat, Storytelling for Influence Instructor and IDEO Design Director Jenn Maer and IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard discussed the tools and mindsets that can help you become a master storyteller, prototype your story, and bring your audience along on an emotional journey.

When Jenn Maer first arrived at IDEO from the advertising world a decade or so ago, not many people were calling themselves storytellers. Now, as she says, “storytelling is having a moment.” Companies are incorporating it into so much of what they do, from pitching to branding, and explaining their values. But just as home cooks have a lot to learn before they can become trained chefs, there’s a lot to learn before you can master storytelling.

Here’s what Jenn recommends you keep top of mind as you put together a great narrative.

Put Your Audience First

No matter how you deliver your story—in a live presentation, or on paper—the most important thing to think about is how you can engage your audience. On a recent project, Jenn and her team were working with a major tech company to help them create a more human-centered culture. To share their learnings with the executives, Jenn and her team surfaced the stories of real people the company would be designing for. Instead of giving the example of “a divorced mom of two,” they told the story of a woman who had gotten divorced after the illness of her second child had torn her marriage apart. Presenting real and personal stories is far more engaging than simply presenting a set of demographics.

Take People on an Emotional Journey

If you think about the stories you consume in the books we read and the movies we watch, they almost all involve some sort of tension—something that’s overcome by the end of the story. That doesn’t mean that you necessarily need to scare your audience, but you do need them to understand the stakes involved, and to bring them to a resolution. As Jenn says, “Storytellers can navigate a room through a whole tide of emotions.”


“Storytellers can navigate a room through a whole tide of emotions.”


Test Out Your Ideas

When you first have a germ of a story idea, explain it to someone else out loud. “If you can’t get it down to a couple of sentences, that may a hint that there’s not a there there yet,” Jenn says. Keep working on it, and test it on larger groups, different audiences, or even a platform like Facebook.

Once you have a draft or a version you’re ready to tell to an audience, solicit feedback. It’s a vulnerable exercise, and can be a painful one when you’ve poured yourself into a story. But keep in mind, feedback isn’t personable. It’s simply in the service of making your story better.

Be a Good Editor

All writers need a good editor, but all writers need to be one, too. Once you feel good about your draft, it’s time to get out your scalpel. “Write out what you want to say and then force yourself to cut it in half,” Jenn says. “Once you’ve done that and go back and reread it, you realize, oh I didn’t need half of what was in there.” Or, try telling yourself that your piece can only have three top ideas. Can you narrow your focus down to what really matters? It sounds hard, but your story will be all the better for it.

Practice to Reduce Anxiety

Writing on paper is one thing. Telling a story aloud to an audience—whether clients or coworkers—is quite another, particularly if you’re sharing something personal. But having the confidence to get up on stage isn’t a personality trait, it’s a skill, and one that you can work on. For Jenn—who, believe it or not, “has a lot of anxiety around public speaking”—the trick is positive visualization. “I try to imagine myself nailing it, and it’s been working.” To prepare for your own stories, try meditation, calm breaths, and positive self talk.
Like this post? Dive in deeper and learn more from Jenn Maer in our online Storytelling for Influence course.

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