Storytelling Do’s and Don’ts header image

Storytelling Do's and Don'ts

Avoiding the pitfalls and making content matter

Storytelling Do’s and Don’ts

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I bet you didn’t know this, but storytelling is a lot like wrapping paper.

Let’s say for a moment that your ideas are like gifts to the world (it’s a bit of an exaggeration but let’s puff up our egos and roll with it). We do our best to package or box up these ideas…  gifts…  in PowerPoints, handouts, and outlines. We often repurpose the boxes because we’re busy people (copy-and-pastes from several PowerPoint templates and the same hurried delivery). 

Unfortunately for you, there are lot of other ideas out there, competing to be heard, wrapped in boxes too.  

But one day, after a long morning of meetings, you walk into a conference room, sit down, and notice a colorful beautifully-wrapped box sitting on the table with a big bow on top. Immediately you feel intrigued by what’s inside. All day long you’ve sat through presenter after presenter unpacking predictable plain boxes, but this one is different. You’re curious and anxious to get started.

This is the power of ideas revealed through good storytelling.

Stories break up the mundane. They package our ideas in novel, relatable, and interesting ways.  They keep things slightly unpredictable, making audiences curious, and should ultimately reveal something meaningful and insightful.

If you’re wanting to rebel against reciting bullet points and regurgitating data in your presentations, here are six best practices for storytelling followed by specific examples of how you could weave stories into your presentations.


1. Stories need to matter.

They need to make an important point; a clear point. Too often audiences are left scratching their heads thinking, “What on earth was that about!” The most effective way to make a story matter is by crafting a transitional statement that pivots from your experience to a universal lesson/truth for everyone. It’s a smooth and concise one-liner.

For example, I use a personal story in my workshops about white water rafting down the Nile River in Uganda when I was 20 years old. During rafting orientation, our group learned that we would be tossed out of our raft several times in class 4 and 5 rapids. We had no clue what we had gotten ourselves into! A few people in our group freaked out; they were paralyzed with fear. A majority of us felt uncomfortable but were all in. And a select few were absolutely thrilled!  After I share this story at my workshops, I pivot with this statement:  “When I coach people through public speaking, I normally get 1 of those 3 reactions: you’re scared and completely outside your comfort zone, you’re uncomfortable but presenting is just part of the job, or you actually enjoy speaking to a group. No matter how you’re feeling during practice today, no matter how high your heart rate spikes, I want permission to be your guide – navigating you through trying new skills.”

A story without a universal truth is simply entertainment – it will not inspire action or deepen your influence. The transition is key to bringing meaning to your story and, while I’m against scripting (what we gain in good wording we lose in presence), I do script transitional statements to make sure what sounds fluid and connected in my head actually comes across as fluid and connected to my audience.


2. Stories need to be in the right detail.

If there’s too much detail, the audience is rolling their eyes and checking their watches.  You’re losing touch with the audience by getting lost in your own story. On the other hand, if there’s too little detail, they lose interest.

For example, too little detail: “When I was young, I had a near-death experience while swimming with some friends. And although that was scary, year after year I kept going back into the pool. Eventually I got over my fear but it took time and courage…”

Right level of detail: “When I was 4 years old, I went swimming at our local outdoor pool with another family. We loved swimming but I hated the pre-swimming ritual: stand firm while my mother lathered me up in an ungodly amount of sunscreen and wait as she inflated my arm floaties.  One day, my mother turned her back from the pool at the exact moment I lost my floaties in the water. I remember looking through the pool’s surface towards the sun, desperately wanting the air up there. Luckily another mom spotted me under the surface and dove in and saved me. As you can imagine, I developed a huge fear of water of that. But instead of opting out of my friend’s pool parties year after year, I decided to keep getting back into the pool. Eventually I became more confident and strong in the water. I got over my fear but it took time and courage…”

Too much detail: “When I was 4 years old, or was I 5? I think I was 4? Anyway, I went swimming on a hot day with some family friends. We had known them for years; I had gone to grade school with their youngest…”   You get the point!  In the words of a client who experienced watching this happen last week, “Someone needs to tell the speaker that it’s not open mic night.”


 3. Good storytellers don’t just retell an experience; they relive it.  

The only way that audiences will feel captivated or humored by your story is if you tell the story in a way that makes them feel what you felt.  They should see the emotion in your expressions. They should hear it in your voice. They should see it in your illustrative gestures. Stories come to life only when you relive them. Imagine watching me talk about rafting down the Nile River with my eyes glued to my slides, hands nervously clutched together, and in a monotone delivery. Hardly compelling. Now imagine my face lighting up as I visualize the rapid approaching, I’m speaking to you as if you’re right there with me in the raft, using gestures to illustrate how hard we had to paddle to crest over the rapid, and using vocal inflection to emphasize the deafening roar of the water.

How you deliver your story is critical for making it impactful, which is why you need to be practicing four foundational speaking skills (check out our 30 minute online course)!


4. Weave the analogy or story references into the rest of the talk subtly.

Evidently what is true of cupcakes is true of stories: moderation is key (true of conference/event themes as well). If you have 30 minutes of content, maybe you reference the opening story (a symbol, person, or analogy from it) two other times throughout your talk. Less is more (don’t try too hard). To really nail storytelling, try opening with a story and then weave it back in your close! We call these ‘bookend’ stories and it’s quite powerful.

A few years ago I worked with a CEO crafting an opening keynote for their company’s annual conference. She relived the moment when, while riding passenger in a small plane with her father as the pilot, they realize midflight something was wrong with the aircraft. She did a beautiful job pivoting from her personal story to a universal take-away for her audience. Not only that, but she used the flying analogy at the end of her talk to inspire the room to keep the final destination in mind (their impact goal for the year). Two other speakers spontaneously referenced her father’s plane, or used the flying analogy, in their talks throughout the week. It became a surprising, clear and powerful (but not overdone) theme.


 5. Don’t try to tell too many stories.

This is a major hurdle for most of the TEDx speakers I support! Here are two practical filters for choosing which stories to share. First, the stories have to serve the purpose of your presentation or talk. Just because it’s a good story doesn’t mean it’s the right story. Don’t get attached to stories more than the ideas they’re supporting. Second, vet the story with a trusted colleague or friend. You may be too close to the personal experience to gauge whether it will have an impact on a broader audience. I’m often helping clients discern between a story that’s interesting to them and a story that will be interesting to a room full of people.

 Sacrifice telling five good stories for the sake of telling two even better stories really well. The audience has limited capacity for details and you’ll lose them if you share too much. Less is more, as long as they’re done in the right detail with powerful universal truths.


 6. Time them out.

Most speakers can’t accurately time themselves. Storytelling is a trap for going over time (Speaker 101: Never go long!). The only way to combat this is by practicing out loud. If your talk is supposed to be 20 minutes long and you practice a story out loud that took 7 minutes, evaluate the level of detail and if you think it deserves a third of your message. There’s no hard and fast rule how long they should be but a third is probably too long. Stories almost always take longer to share live in front of audience than alone in front of the mirror. Be conservative! You may be comfortable speaking, especially about things you are passionate about, but don’t wing it. Practice out loud. Find the right versions. Never go long.


We remember stories long after we forget metrics and data. Stories break down defenses, clearly illustrate ideas, hold attention (if done well), make us more relatable, and are great for opening and closing presentations.

So how can you integrate them into your presentations effectively?

If you’re asking your team to put customers first, consider sharing about the time you encountered extraordinary customer service. If you’re an inspirational speaker, don’t craft a bunch of tweetable one-liners; reveal something about yourself, perhaps when you struggled with the universal truths. If you’re presenting data and statistics to inform a decision, share about the time when data did or didn’t inform decisions, and the consequences (at your company or another recognizable company). If you’re navigating a team through significant change, express empathy by sharing how you personally persevered through a tough transition.

It’s not enough to have good ideas anymore. You need to cut through the distractions and monotony to influence your busy audiences. We need communicators like you to break the mold. Commit to packaging your ideas in thoughtful impactful ways.

Become a powerful storyteller!


Want more? Four bonus tips:

  1. Start a story journal. Keep an ongoing list of interesting life experiences (aka treasure trove of stories for future talks).
  2. Use a picture! If you’re using slides, insert one high quality picture from your story. (Less is more. Don’t be like grandma pulling out her picture film strip that drops to the floor!)
  3. Pauses kick a storytelling up a notch! Don’t be afraid to pause for a second or two right before the story climax, after a plot twist, or after a humorous moment.
  4. Observe storytellers. Start to notice what works well (or doesn’t). One of my favorite  stories is in Boyd Varty’s TED Talk. Watch the part where he relives a crocodile attack and the pivot to his universal truth.