How To Tell Great Stories During Presentations

September 14, 2015

storytelling tips-blogBy now, most of us have heard how crucial storytelling is to a presentation. But it's not always the easiest thing to do: Which story do you choose to illustrate your message, and what parts do you leave out? What's the best way to deliver the story once you've chosen it? I've provided an easy 5-step formula for crafting compelling stories below.

Step 1. Know the Why.

To create compelling stories, you need to be passionate about storytelling.  However you don’t need to be obsessed with creative writing to get excited. Developing a passion for storytelling is as easy as knowing why storytelling is a valuable skill for all professionals, especially presenters.

storytelling tips stories

If you need a crash course in the power of storytelling, check out these resources:

The Science Behind Storytelling -- And Why It Matters

The Science of Storytelling For Presentations 

The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool

Step 2. Focus on yourself.

Identifying a great story is the second step towards becoming a master storyteller.

When considering a topic for a story, you might be tempted to build your narrative around the product you are pitching or the impressive funding you just received. However, the best foundation for your stories is most likely you: your failures, challenges, lucky breaks, and epiphanies.

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To identify a meaningful story for your presentation, pinpoint a transformative experience that relates to the overall message of your presentation topic.  Once you know what story you want to tell, you can start the process of preparing your story to be shared with an audience.

Since people have been sharing stories for centuries, there are many established formats that you can follow when you craft your narrative. While it is helpful to have so many examples of storytelling styles for inspiration, the number of options can also be overwhelming. The following three steps encapsulate one easy-to-follow format, shared with me by acclaimed writer Burt Helm, who used these tips to craft stories for his articles for The New York Times, Inc magazine, and other respected publications.

Step 3. Identify the complication.

storytelling tips slideshare example

Before you even start scripting your story for your presentation, identify the complication within the tale.

A complication is an unexpected situation that forces a character to make a choice. The complication can be good or bad, as long as it puts the character in a position to decide how to respond.

storytelling tips example

For example, a complication could be something as simple as checking your inbox to discover an email that contains valuable but private information that your boss intended to send to another colleague.

storytelling tips example ethos3

Another complication could be something unusual like opening the refrigerator to find that your toddler has used your laptop as a cookie sheet for a baking experiment.

Both of these scenarios knock the characters off their usual path and force them to decide how to proceed.

After you identify the complication of your story, use the complication to build the introduction for your story.  By leading with the complication, you will immediately captivate the audience. Audience members will naturally be curious about your story and wonder, 'What will the character do next?' Because of the complication, you will have the audience in the palm of your hand.

storytelling tips complication

Step 4. Be like South Park.

Once you have intrigued your audience with the complication, keep them hooked throughout the middle of your story by following storytelling advice shared by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker in the documentary Six Days to Air: The Making of South Park. Replace your 'ands' with 'buts' and 'therefores.’  In the documentary, Trey explains, 'Whenever you can replace your 'ands' with 'buts' and 'therefores,' it makes for better writing.'

Watch Matt and Trey explain this tip to NYU students in this video mtvU Stand In: Trey Parker and Matt Stone:

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The bottom line? Don’t say this: I opened the email and then realized it was not intended for me. Then, I freaked out and called a friend to get advice.

Say this instead: I opened the email but then realized it was not intended for me. Therefore I freaked out and called a friend to get advice.

This tip from the South Park creators leads to small adjustments that can make a big difference to your story.

storytelling tips burt helm

Step 5. End with transformation.

To have a powerful story, you need a gripping climax at the end of the tale. In the words of Burt Helm, a good climax is the moment where everything changes forever—where you learned a valuable lesson, or discovered something important about yourself, or made a decision that explains who you are today. 

storytelling tips climax

If you were able to build your story according to Tip #2 (focus on yourself) you are most likely the character who experiences the moment of realization and resulting transformation.

storytelling tips

For example, in the fictional story used above, you should end the story with something like this: After reading the email from my boss, I couldn’t sleep for days. After many sleepless nights, I realized that I needed to free myself from the burden of the secret because otherwise I would forever struggle with the guilt. Therefore I marched into my boss’ office the next morning and told her everything I had read.

That ending is much more interesting than: A few days after reading the email from my boss, I told her everything I had read.

By ending your story with the moment of transformation, instead of just the facts of the anecdote, you will give your audience a more memorable and meaningful takeaway from your story.


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Your stories should be a reflection of you and the message you want to share with the world.  There is no magic blueprint for telling a story because stories come in a beautiful myriad of styles. However the formula listed above can guide you through the process of telling a story that is uniquely yours, but also meaningful to the people who will be experiencing your tale through your words. Give it a try. Keep what works for you and discard the rest.

Leslie Belknap is the Senior Content Strategist for Ethos3, as well as a board member and speakers’ coach for TEDxNashville. Say hi to Leslie on Twitter; she manages tweets for Ethos3.