The Struggle To Tell Stories Well: Three Easy Steps

Celebrate the Chinese New Year in fine spirit with toying with new ways to tell your (or your company’s) story. This post outlines three ways to hook (and retain) your audience through effective—and memorable storytelling.

Ensure your story has legs

If you don’t dig deep into your soul, you won’t have legs. That’s what Jack (Bradley Cooper) tells Ally (Lady Gaga) as she moves from country ballads to pop stardom. This memorable quote feels meaningful if we apply the wisdom to storytelling. If we don’t bring in substance, real story and lessons, our story comes across as trite and fluff. To get there:

  • Think of a life-changing moment, a crossroads, or an ‘a-ha’ moment where your path (and purpose) felt clearer.
  • Put aside fear others will judge you. (Some might; but most won’t. When I ask presenters what they admire most in gifted presenters, they mention a willingness to stay open, frank, and vulnerable. Stories help you become that presenter.)
  • Ensure the language stays as bold (and accessible and open) as the idea.

Employ clear, understandable language

Sometimes a story topic feels memorable, but the language the storyteller uses remains cautious, business-like, and therefore, stale and one-dimensional. To check your language remains personable and true, apply this small checklist:

  • Do I employ plain vs. complicated language? Think of the wise advice in the Economist’s indispensable Style Guide: Never use a long word when a short word will do. Apply this gem to your storytelling. Also, long words (particularly adverbs and camouflaged verbs) tend to make us trip and falter.
  • Do I sound conversational, as though I’m speaking to a dear friend? If so, great! You align with Sir Richard Branson’s terrific advice to speak to your audience as though they’re a dinner guest in your home. If not, revise your tone.
  • Do I remove all jargon and overly formal language? If not, you run the risk of sounding stuffy and off-putting and therefore, watering down the beauty of your story.

Keep to a framework to avoid rambling

Often the biggest challenge for storytellers becomes keeping on track and aligned with the topic you promised you’d cover.  But if we hug a small framework, you can finish up within a minute or two—and keep your listeners hooked and uplifted at the end.

This framework I share below we use at Kenan-Flagler Business School where I’m a lecturer of business communication. (We can thank Dr. Heidi Schultz for this terrific tool.) I ask storytellers to view the short list as two book ends; then, a beginning, middle, and an end—the delightful components we all listen for in stories.

  • An overarching business point. (1-2 lines. Keep it short—almost like a book title.)
  • A beginning outlining a situation—here’s where the story starts.
  • A challenge—the middle of the story where something rocks the status quo.
  • The results—what emerged from the challenge—how you pulled through.
  • A ‘so what’ statement tying the story together (At this point you move from you —micro—to the larger audience/community—macro. Keep it short—1-2 sentences tops—for optimum impact.


With a helpful framework to help control length and provide structure, tips to keep the language lively and personable, and ideas on how to provide a meaningful story with substance, your next story will come up trumps. With that, your informative (or persuasive) presentation can only become richer.



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