The Art of Storytelling: A Guide to Becoming a More Effective Storyteller
Anyone who tells stories is a storyteller. Yes, novelists, film directors, and anyone who’s done a TED Talk would qualify for that title. But it can also be a teacher going over a lesson with students or an engineer sharing a slide deck with a manager. Storytelling plays an important role across many jobs and organizations—in meetings, board rooms, and brainstorms. We’ve created this guide to storytelling to share our insights on why storytelling is important, common storytelling mistakes, and how to create an effective story.
Why Storytelling is Important
Stories help connect data to emotion and open people’s minds. While every business must pay attention to facts and figures, data alone can’t propel innovation. In fact, research shows an argument based purely on numbers is less effective at changing someone’s mind. Stories are especially helpful when you're trying to rally support for a new idea. When there’s no data to prove something might work, a powerful story can do a better job of showing potential.
Storytelling can have an impact in every single area of a business, from human resources to leadership. Today, companies are incorporating storytelling 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.
How to Create a Story Arc
There are so many ways to tell a story. In a business context, it’s just as important as in film or entertainment to think about the way you structure your story and select the right pieces of information for maximum impact. There are 4 main elements in a story:
There is no one right way to tell a story. But the way you choose to organize your information can be the deciding factor in getting your audience to take the action you desire...or not. The story arc of the 4 C’s works well if your presentation has a clear problem and solution.
The story arc is the choreography of your story—how it plays across time and in terms of emotion and how your audience is experiencing your story. As humans, we’re very attuned to story arcs. They can create anticipation and engagement, which leads to better retention and understanding. There are several classic story arcs that can be seen across hundreds of years of literature and storytelling:
- The Four C's: If your presentation has a clear problem and solution
- In Media Res: When you want to hook your audience from the get-go
- The Hero's Journey: If you want your audience to adopt a new idea
- Rags to Riches: To communicate a message of hope, optimism, and perseverance
- Cinderella Story: To emphasize that negative circumstances can improve despite obstacles or failures along the way
- Man in Hole: If you navigated through unexpected troubles
Learn more about crafting stories that motivate and inspire in our online course Storytelling for Influence.
5 Tips to Be a Better Storyteller
Here are 5 storytelling tips to keep in mind to put together a great narrative:
1. 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. Presenting real and personal stories is far more engaging than simply presenting a set of demographics.
2. Take People On an Emotional Journey
If you think about the stories you consume in books and movies, they almost all involve some sort of tension—something that’s overcome by the end of the story. That doesn’t mean that you need to scare your audience, but you do need them to understand the stakes involved and to bring them to a resolution.
3. Test Your Ideas
When you first have a germ of a story idea, explain it to someone else out loud. Keep working on it, and test it on larger groups, different audiences, or even on social media. Once you have a draft or a version you’re ready to tell to an audience, get feedback. We think of this as prototyping your story. It’s a vulnerable exercise, but keep in mind it’s in the service of making your story better.
4. 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. See how much you can cut. Or, try telling yourself that your piece can only have three top ideas. Can you narrow your focus to what really matters? It sounds hard, but your story will be better for it.
5. 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. One helpful trick is positive visualization, imagining the presentation going well. Try to incorporate meditation, calm breaths, and positive self talk.
Common Storytelling Mistakes
In new and experienced storytellers alike, there are a number of storytelling mistakes that we’ve seen. Here are 7 common ones to look out for:
1. Reading the Slides
The biggest mistake presenters make is putting many words on a slide and then reading them. This is frustrating for an audience, because they can read the words faster than you can say them. The best approach is to have a few words on the slide and explain with more context—that way, the audience actually needs to listen to you.
2. Failing to Rehearse
It's remarkable how few people rehearse their presentations. Some are so nervous about presenting that they don’t want to go through it more than once. Others believe that being rehearsed might make them seem less “natural.” The reality is that every great presenter—from the TED speaker to the stand-up comedian—is heavily rehearsed. If you don't practice, you won’t be prepared.
3. Being abstract
Sometimes, we feel smart being abstract and talking about high-level truths. But stories run on specifics. Audiences remember detail—especially sensorial detail (“It was a dark and stormy night…”). People engage with stories through their senses. That being said, try to make sure the details are relevant to the point of your story. If it's an optimistic story, include details that are uplifting, and so forth.
4. Not Getting to the Point
The first thirty seconds of a story is your opportunity to grab an audience’s attention. If you want to tell a powerful story, it's a bad idea to waste that time on “throat clearing,” or laying out the agenda, defining your terms, introducing yourself, and so on. Find a strong opener, and stick to it.
5. Making it Overly Professional
Some people think that within a professional context they shouldn't display their feelings. They remove all emotion and replace it with business jargon and data, entering the state we call “professional boring mode.” But emotion is what makes a story memorable and incites people to act. It might seem counterintuitive, but speaking naturally and informally with genuine emotion will make you sound confident and help you engage an audience.
6. Not Knowing Your Audience
Yes, you probably have a story you want to tell. But what about the story your audience wants to hear? Time-crunched executives will want you to get to the point quickly, while boots-on-the-ground types will crave nuance and detailed action items. Tell the wrong story to the wrong audience and you'll lose their attention.
7. Having a Non-Ending Ending
“So, uh, yeah, looks like, uh, our time is up, so, uh, I guess I'll stop here...any questions?” That's not a very memorable way to wrap up a story. Your ending is an opportunity to make an impression with your audience. Think about your big finish. And stick the landing.
“Sometimes, we feel smart being abstract and talking about high-level truths. But stories run on specifics.”
Storytelling with Data
You might have lots of compelling data that you’re ready to share with your team. The challenge is how to go from charts and numbers to a story that will move your stakeholders and build alignment around a way forward. Here are a few tips for telling stories with data:
- Focus on clarity: When possible, translate data into plain language
- Don’t overwhelm your audience with data: Use storytelling to counterbalance information overload
- Bring in real world examples: Combine research and insights about customers with data and examples about what's happening in the market
- Connect emotionally: All the data in the world won’t sway your stakeholders if they can’t connect emotionally with what it means
- Be interactive: Create prototypes or interactive data visualizations to bring the data to life
A Framework for Giving Presentations
Use the following presentation framework to tell stories and deliver presentations that are memorable and engaging:
Presence: Be Fully Present for Your Presentation
It can be hard to show up fully present when there are so many distractions around us. Maybe you’re coming out of a stressful meeting or worrying about the health of a family member. Try an exercise like “Lion Mouse.” First, hold up your hands like lion claws and make yourself feel really big, then make your mouth huge and roar like a lion. Now, make your fingers small next to you, squeeze your nose and mouth together, and make tiny squeak noises like a mouse. After going through each of these five times, you’ll start to feel warmed up, loose, and present in the moment.
Originality: Anchor in What’s Authentic to You
Your authentic voice is the thing that only you can bring to your stories. When it comes to our work, many of us talk about what we do, but not why we do it. What are you in it for? Practice the 90-second version of why you do the work that you do, and make sure the story is authentic to you and not a version that anyone else could tell. When you bring originality into your story, you build trust by sharing who you are with others.
Inclusion: Involve Your Audience
In improv, performers use their words and body language to share space with other people. Oftentimes it’s not about being front stage, but rather about being a good scene partner who brings forward other voices. In presentations, inclusion is about involving your audience in the story. As a leader or presenter, being vulnerable in your stories is one way that you can create space for others to tell their own vulnerable stories. And as a listener, being welcoming, attentive, and ready, as if you’re ready to catch a ball from the speaker, creates the opportunity for deeper connection.
Narrative: Give Structure to Your Presentation
The narrative element of presentations is what most people are familiar with. It’s the story arc that gives a structure or formula to something that otherwise might feel abstract. One example is the Pixar story spine, which can apply to many different lengths and formats: “Once upon a time _____. Every day _____. Until one day _____. Because of that _____. Until finally _____.”
Transformation: Focus on the Change You Want
Think about how you want your audience to feel or act after your presentation. Are you hoping to motivate or educate? Do you want people to feel reflective or passionate? One tip is using words that resonate with your audience—for example, specific marketing terms for a meeting with marketing leadership—to explain and bring to life the things you care about. Focusing on the change you want your listeners to go through will help you to maximize the impact of your presentation.
Crafting Your Story
Telling a great story isn’t magic. There are storytelling techniques, tools, and strategies that can make you a more confident and effective storyteller. In our online course Storytelling for Influence, we teach you how to create your story blueprint, build storytelling prototypes, and develop your unique tone and style.
Want to become an even stronger communicator and share your ideas in ways that engage, inspire, and motivate? Check out storytelling resources on the IDEO U blog, or enroll in our online Communicating for Impact Certificate.
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