How to tell great stories

April 14, 2011 in How to, Ignite, Speech by

Have you ever sat and listened to someone tell a wonderful story and felt transported?

"You know what they say about big noses"

I’ve told a lot of stories… Terrible stories, boring stories, stories that aren’t true. Learn from my mistakes.

There are so many fun words to use to describe people that speak well. Captivating, awe-inspiring, entrancing… I personally like the word ‘enthralling’ because it sounds funny to be in someones thrall.

Thrall sounds like a mythical beast. Actually, according to google it is. It’s the name of an Orc in World of Warcraft.

So Merlin, you want to turn your listener into an Orc?

Don’t do it right, do it well.

"Feel the wrath of my purple lightning fist!"

There are wrong ways to speak, and there are effective ways to speak. There is no such thing as speaking right. Give up the idea of doing things correctly.

Great speeches, stories and jokes are not a matter of perfection but of constant refinement, guessing, testing, and trying new things out.

Here are some general rules of what works well:

  • Match the pace and tone with the action, so speak faster and more excited during a chase, and be quiet and sneaky if you’re hiding.
  • Give your characters names – even just ‘Hat guy’ and ‘Fatso’ so we can keep track of them, because we hate ‘So this other guy from before hit the other dude and the third guy fell over’
  • Give people voices, strong descriptions and hypothetical (or real) backstories: “The  hairy Russian guy was probably a drug smuggler”
  • Bullshit, but don’t lie. We don’t mind if you exaggerate speeds and sizes, or gloss over details, but we’ll become disinterested if you get your facts muddled and we feel you’re trying to fool us
  • The length of your story length should be proportionate with the payoff. If it ends with you leaping out of a flaming helicopter, we can handle more backstory and description than if it’s about visiting the zoo
  • Use metaphors to get our imagination going: “She started spluttering in surprise like dingo that’s eaten a cane toad”

Find the ways that work – and to know what works, you need to know what you want.

Why are you talking?

Have a clear purpose in mind, and check in with it to make sure you’re on track. You might want to impress people or amuse them, you might want to inform them or amaze them, or just make a point. That’s all dandy, but if you just want to get your story out because we were talking about dolphins and I saw a dolphin once with my grandpa and it was awesome, your story will suck.

And try to avoid telling your awesome story from a year ago about flaming killer monkeys right after someone tells one about how today they saw some warm mildly agressive lemurs. It’s annoying to be one-upped, resist the temptation and wait for another opportunity.

Just the necessary details

"Gimme all your bananas"

Knowing why you’re talking will quickly tell you which details are important.

Details which are unimportant, don’t add to the setting, and are unnecessarily technical, are bloody annoying to listen to. The audience will get lost in a wave of information which they cannot file, and they will quickly tune out or heckle you: “Is this going to be in the test?”

If you can, keep the necessary details brief, and update them on the relevance: “I’m telling you this because…” or at least say: “This will be important later”

Have a beginning, maybe a middle, but definitely an ending

If you’re telling a joke, the end is the punchline. Say it, bask in the warm glow of their laughter and shut up. It’s now someone else’s turn.

Even when telling a story, it is vital to have a punchline. Some storytellers forget what they’re doing and get into a recitation of their life events, leading from their story, right up to current telling of it. Don’t.

Similarly, I have a habit of getting side-tracked, and going completely off topic and am left wondering why no-one has a clue what I’m on about. Don’t.

Before you start, (or as you go along) develop an idea of what the funny or important or interesting points are, hit them, trot along to the ending and deliver it with gusto. The ending can even be something really simple and packaged like: “The moral to this story is that you shouldn’t steal bananas from blind hookers”


Don’t hang out for laughs

There is a temptation to deliver the funnies of a story with an obvious ‘I’m telling a joke now’ cadence that can seem patronising, and might leave you out in the cold. It is quite awkward to pause for laughs and be greeted by a cricket-chirruping tumbleweed moment, believe me.

You will often find better results by underselling a funny point and making a little play of being rudely interrupted by a roar of laughter. I would suggest reserving those special ‘ta-da’ moments for when you’re retelling someone else’s shit joke, or are intentionally butchering one of your own. In any case, use them sparingly.

We (your audience of Orcs) do not need you to tell us what’s funny. We’ll decide that for ourselves. Puny human.

Be responsive

Not all stories will work with every audience, just as different delivery styles will match different listeners.

Keep a keen eye on your audience and be responsive to their state. If they are getting bored, checking their phones or whispering among themselves then you’re losing them. Change it up and try to grab them. Try to make your story relevant to them. Lie if you have to: “There was this girl there and she looked just like you, Jane”

If the story is about how awesome you are, tell it in a third-person self-deprecating way, get someone else to, or change the details until you’re the chump (the accidental hero is a great one). People experience strongly positive feelings from complimenting other people and if you’re complimenting yourself, you’re robbing them of the opportunity.

"So there I was being totally awesome, as per..."

If you’re still not getting them, fold your hand and abandon the story. It can be a humorous release for them, and save you some important social value chips. I often hit the eject handle by saying “Then the narrator realised his story was boring and stopped”

Let other people have their turn

Some people tell a joke or a story, are met with success and take that as implicit permission to keep talking. It ain’t. It has also opened up the floor for other speakers, so be mindful to let everyone have a say.

Master storytellers will also let other people tell parts of their story. If someone is a mechanic or a computer nerd, you might let them expand on a point which fits within their specific knowledge area. If you’re talking about that time you mistook a policewoman for a stripper, and the organiser of your buck’s night is present, you might let him tell the details about what she was carrying in her bag.

These invitations must be carefully crafted (“Tell us what was in her bag” works better than “What was she carrying?”) so the story doesn’t become confused or get hijacked. Interject by clearly saying ‘Right! And…’ and don’t argue with their details, you invited them, so keep them.

You can sometimes do a little ‘Welcome back’ summary to bring the story back on track: “So she had dildos, lube and a transit card, right, but no coat!” These invited interjections can be a very potent tool. They build credibility and make people feel included and entertained.

Break all the rules

If you find what works, change it up and try something new. Break the rules or write your own – just don’t get stuck in the trap of thinking you’ve found the perfect way to tell a story, because you’ll quickly find that one telling isn’t like any other.

And remember to keep doing interesting things so you’ve got plenty of stories to tell. We hate hearing ‘today on the train a woman was wearing sandals and had gross toenails’ or ‘my boss is an asshole’ stories. Go wrestle a panda.

I’m running a Speech and Confidence workshop in London on the 8th of May, check it out:
The inspiration from this blog came from Harry Beckwith’s article in Psychology Today: