The Seven Deadly Sins of Storytelling

Everyone in business and design is talking about storytelling these days, and this seems like a good thing. If we can replace the dreary powerpoint decks with tales that win hearts and minds, then life for everyone will be better. But before you jump on the storytelling bus, make sure you're aware of the seven deadly sins.

Deadly Sin #1: Excessive Throat Clearing

The first thirty seconds of a story is your opportunity to grab an audience. Which is why it's a bad idea to waste that time on "Throat clearing": laying out the agenda, defining your terms, introducing yourself, and so on. Find a strong opener, and stick to it.  

Deadly Sin #2: Professional Boring Mode

Some people think that, within a professional context, they shouldn't display emotion. So they remove all the feelings and replace them 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 engage an audience.

Deadly Sin #3: Reading the Slides

The biggest mistake amateur presenters make is putting many words on a slide and then reading them. This is just annoying for an audience: they can read the words faster than you can say them. It also puts the audience and the presenter on the same footing: you don't know any more than them. The best approach is to have few words on the slide: that way, the audience actually needs to listen to you. "But what about people who can't attend?" you ask. If you really need to communicate with them, create a separate deck with lots of words.

Deadly Sin #4: Failure to Rehearse

It's remarkable how few people rehearse their presentations. Some are just so scared by presenting that they don't want anything to do with it. Others believe that being rehearsed might make them less "natural." The reality, of course, is that every great presenter—from the TED speaker to the stand-up comedian—is heavily rehearsed. If you don't practice, you will suck. End of story.

Emotion is what makes a story memorable and incites us to act

Deadly Sin #5: Living in the Abstract Space

Sometimes it feels smart to be objective and talk about high-level truths. But stories run on specifics. Audiences remember detail. Especially sensorial detail, "It was a dark and stormy night...." Humans engage 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.

Deadly Sin #6: Not Knowing Your Audience

Yes, you probably have a story that 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.

Deadly Sin #7: The 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 the story equivalent of a gymnast falling off the high bars. Think about your big finish. And stick the landing.

Hone your storytelling skills for maximum impact. Join our Storytelling for Influence online course. 


Neil Stevenson
Neil Stevenson

Executive Portfolio Director, IDEO Chicago
Neil is on a mission to understand creativity and find new ways to enable and encourage it in others.


Annette FerraraAnnette Ferrara
Marketing Lead, IDEO Chicago
Annette likes to play with words, that's why she's a marketer at IDEO, co-editor of this blog, and co-producer of Mortified Chicago.


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