Storytelling for Public Speakers: A Guide to Captivating Audiences
12 min read
What you’ll learn:
- The elements of a compelling story.
- How to include storytelling within speeches.
- How to make your story powerful and captivating.
- Tips for delivering your story with confidence.
- Examples of great public speakers using storytelling
Storytelling is at the root of public speaking.
Telling tales was one of humankind’s earliest forms of communication. It allowed us to share ideas, give structure to a complex world, and provide light entertainment between woolly mammoth hunts.
The earliest known recorded story is that of Gilgamesh, written around 2100 B.C, but our oral storytelling traditions go back much, much farther.
This might all seem a far cry from today’s corporate keynotes, but make no mistake, storytelling is just as powerful now as it’s ever been.
Whether you want to captivate an audience, convey complex ideas, or deliver a memorable message – telling a great story is often the best way.
In this article, we’ll explore the art of storytelling for public speakers and explain how to harness the power of a great story.
1. What is storytelling and why is it important for public speakers?
Storytelling is the art of conveying a message through narrative.
Or put simply, telling a series of events that are related to each other.
Stories have been used throughout history to pass on knowledge, ideas, and values. While modern public speakers may have moved on from campfires, storytelling is still used to achieve the same key objectives:
- Passing on knowledge.
- Sharing ideas.
- Conveying values.
As humans, we’ve evolved not only to express ourselves through stories – but to listen, learn and remember things through stories too. That’s what makes stories so powerful – they stick. Infact, some estimates put stories as being 22x more memorable than facts alone.
Whether it’s an ancient tale about a great flood, or a pitch about your new business ideas, if the story is good – people will remember it for a long time.
But stories only stick when they have the right elements, so what’s needed?
2. The elements of a compelling story.
We may have evolved for storytelling – but in order to do it properly, we must understand the formulas at play.
Whether it’s a children’s book, signature speech or Shakespeare play, every compelling story has several key elements that make it engaging and memorable. These include:
Characters: Every story needs characters that your audience can relate to and care about.
Conflict: Stories need conflict to create tension and keep your audience engaged.
Resolution: Stories need a resolution that satisfies the audience and provides closure.
Emotion: A story needs to evoke emotion in your audience to create a memorable experience.
Relevance: Your story needs to be relevant to your message and tie into the overall theme of your speech.
That might seem a lot to think about, but let’s see how many of these elements you can spot in the world’s shortest story – using only six words:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Okay, we’re clearly missing our satisfying resolution here. But you get the point, even the shortest, most simple story can stir our emotions and imagination.
So, how do we harness the power of stories when speaking in public?
3. How to include storytelling within different types of speech.
As a public speaking coach, I believe that any public speaking situation can benefit from a dose of storytelling.
Unless you’re testifying in a court of law, then probably best to stick with the facts.
But how, where, and when to use a story, depends on the type of speech you’re delivering.
In a TED style talk or a best man’s speech, it’s normal to tell a number of different short stories throughout the speech. These may be linked together sequentially, or you may use an assortment of different anecdotes that each relate to the wider topic.
In a formal presentation, your storytelling will need to be balanced with relaying the hard facts and figures. However, you may use a short story to describe a particular problem, to sell a benefit, or to influence a change in direction, then back it up with the necessary data.
In a technical presentation, it’s more challenging to include storytelling. These are often information-heavy with little room for creativity. But that also makes them typically dry and uninspiring! So a great option here is to open the presentation with a concise but compelling anecdote, then refer back to it at the end to reinforce the message.
Regardless of what type of speech you’re delivering, from keynote address to quarterly sales update, there’s nearly always an opportunity to improve it with some storytelling.
But how do you make sure your story lands? Let’s look at this next.
4. How to structure public speaking stories in an effective story.
Whatever type of speech you’re delivering, it requires some planning and fore-thought to ensure your story has the desired effect.
Follow these steps to create a story which is structured for success:
- Clarify the topic: What is the core message or idea you want to get across? The first step is making sure you choose a story which clearly resonates with this.
- Create your characters: Every story needs at least one character. That could be you, someone you know, a real person, or someone imagined. Either way, you must share enough about the character’s personality or background to make them real and relatable.
- Conjur the conflict: Without conflict, stories have no momentum. Conflict can be internal “I felt overwhelmed by my career options.”, or external “The whole IT system crashed as we went live”. Make sure to sufficiently raise the stakes so that your audience becomes invested.
- Craft your plot: The easiest way to figure out your story’s plot, is to answer the question: “so then what”? You want to describe a sequence of events which build to a final outcome, the climax of the story, and then its ultimate resolution.
Again, this might sound like a lot to think about. However, if there’s an overarching principle of storytelling structure to remember, it’s this: don’t overcomplicate things! If in doubt, keep it short, simple and easy to follow.
With that in mind, here’s an example of a simple yet powerful storytelling framework.
The S.O.A.R method:
Situation – where were you, what was happening? (character)
Obstacle – what problem were you facing? (conflict)
Action – how did you try to solve it? (plot development)
Resolution – what was the outcome? (climax and resolution)
There are many storytelling frameworks like this, some more complex than others.
The point is, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel – even our most beloved movies and books aren’t built from scratch each time. You might be surprised to find the exact same underlying character journey beneath many well known stories, films and books.
Use these frameworks as a short-cut to formatting your stories in an effective way.
We also have some detailed guides on how to structure:
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5. How to make your story powerful and captivating.
Once your story has been crafted and refined, it’s time to work on the delivery.
Unlike “typical” public speaking, storytelling often requires a heightened style of performance. Reciting stories often needs a dash of passion, a sprinkle of intrigue, and a dose of emotion.
Here’s a few ways to ensure you hit those storytelling high-notes:
Think back to those early humans around the camp-fire – no lectern, no notes, no powerpoint. Instead, they learned to use their body language to its full effect. Gesturing vividly, using their physicality and facial expressions for dramatic effect, and embodying the characters and scenes they were retelling.
For modern public speakers, especially in a business environment, it takes a bit of courage to communicate in a more dramatic fashion. But when retelling a story, people expect a bit more entertainment value. So I encourage you to throw off the stiff-suited corporate delivery style, and be more bold with your body language.
Like a dramatic soundtrack to a movie, your voice sets the mood, primes the audience for what’s to come, and informs them to feel scared, excited or elated.
Use your pitch, pace, tone, volume and melody to bring your words and characters to life. By doing so you can elicit your audience’s emotions, allowing them to feel and experience your story, rather than simply hearing it.
Another vital aspect of the voice when storytelling is pauses. There is nothing that builds suspense and intrigue like a well timed pause. No matter what story you’re telling, try to get in at least one powerful pause.
If stories were a picture, you want to conjure a complex and colourful scene, not a 2D grayscale image.
This can be achieved by including a spectrum of senses within your storytelling. By describing what your character saw, heard and felt, you can engage your audience’s imagination. The more descriptive your story is, the clearer it will play out in their mind’s eye.
Of course, there’s many more nuanced layers that go into great storytelling. Which ultimately leads us from public speaking storytelling into the realm of acting on stage.
But there’s no need to go full-hamlet in your next all-hands meeting. Simply by including some of these practices into your delivery style, you can add just the right touch of theatrics to your storytelling
But what about feeling confident enough to pull off such a feat?
6. Tips for delivering your story with confidence.
Like all forms of public speaking, the best storytelling is done when you’re able to control the nerves and keep yourself composed. Though as we know, that’s easier said than done.
But fear not, you don’t need to be 100% nerves-free to tell a great story. In fact, one of the great things about storytelling for public speakers is that you can channel that nervous energy into your performance.
Let’s explore some top tips for storytelling confidence:
Rehearse your delivery:
There’s a reason actors spend weeks rehearsing before a performance. As you become more familiar with the material, you become more confident. Half of feeling “confident” comes down to this simple, unavoidable reality of having put in the work.
Here’s the magic formula if there was one: Deliver your story until you know it off-by-heart. I guarantee you’ll feel more confident. People often avoid this, worrying they’ll become “over-prepared” and lose it. But if anything, the opposite is true – the more legwork you put into internalising your story, the more natural and effortless it will come across.
Keep your eyes on your audience:
People have a tendency to look off into the distance when telling stories. It’s partly an automatic reaction to the brain retrieving information from memory. But it can also show a lack of confidence, and sometimes disengage your audience.
It’s fine to occasionally look away, but remember that your direct eye-contact is a powerful communication tool that serves two purposes: it keeps the audience drawn into you and your story, while keeping you present and focused on them.
Pace and pauses:
We mentioned earlier how pace and pauses add to the drama and suspense of your storytelling. But did you know, they can also increase your feeling of confidence too?
When you rush your words, or forget to breathe, you feel more nervous. (I know that seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many speakers forget it once they’re up on stage!) In order to remain calm and composed, remember to slow down, control your pace, and have the courage to hold silence when appropriate.
Connect with your audience:
The more connected you feel to the audience, the more comfortable you’ll feel talking to them. Tear down the barriers between speaker and audience by asking a question, instructing a raise of hands, or even by inviting someone up on stage to take part (as long as you’ve planned it!). By connecting in this way, you’ll feel more confident, and they’ll feel part of the experience.
Chanel your nerves:
As I mentioned earlier, storytelling gives you the opportunity to channel your nerves in a constructive way. Use that adrenaline to fuel your performance – make your characters bigger, your gestures broader, and your voice carry further. It’s a far better strategy than trying to bottle things up until your legs start wobbling.
Now you know how to structure, rehearse and prepare for storytelling in your next speech, let’s take inspiration from some great public speaking storytellers.
7. Examples of great public speakers using storytelling.
There are many great orators that serve as inspiration for speakers looking to improve their skills. Here are some examples of powerful speakers that have captivated audiences through storytelling:
- Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Speech
In his famous 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech, Steve Jobs shared three personal stories from his life. They demonstrated the importance of following your dreams, being true to yourself, and embracing failure. Jobs’ stories were relatable, inspiring, and helped to make his message memorable.
- Brené Brown’s TED Talk on Vulnerability
Brené Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability is a masterclass in storytelling. Brown shares personal stories of her own struggles with vulnerability and how they had impacted her life. Her stories are honest, emotional and authentic – helping to make her message resonate with the audience.
- Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech
This speech by MLK is one of the most famous examples of storytelling in public speaking. King used powerful metaphors, vivid imagery, and personal anecdotes to convey his message about the need for racial equality. His stories helped to create an emotional connection with his audience and made his message unforgettable.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on The Danger of a Single Story
In her TED Talk on The Danger of a Single Story, Adichie shares stories about how growing up in Nigeria shaped her view of the world. Her stories helped to illustrate the importance of embracing diversity and rejecting stereotypes, and they made her message compelling and memorable.
These examples demonstrate the power of storytelling in public speaking, but not all storytelling has to cover heavy topics like societal change or business success. You can make a powerful point from simple stories, and everyday anecdotes.
There are some storytelling faux-pas to watch out for though. Let’s cover them next.
8. Common mistakes to avoid when using storytelling in public speaking.
There’s no “perfect formula” for using storytelling when public speaking. Like great art or music, so much of it is subjective. That said, in reality there are some common mistakes that can erode your credibility.
These are things that nine times out of ten, you’re better off avoiding when telling a story within a speech.
- “When is this thing going to end?!”
It’s important to keep your story simple and concise. Too complex or meandering, and your audience will stop following. Keep things punchy, deliver it precisely, and it’ll be far more impactful.
- “What has this got to do with anything?”
Your story should always tie into the overall theme of your speech. If it doesn’t relate to your message, people will be confused. If needed, spell out for them exactly what the relevance is (though ideally you won’t have to)
- “This thing is all over the place”
Even a great story is liable to go off the rails without some prior preparation. If you forget an important part of the story, or get mixed up, it’s very difficult to go back and rectify things. You want your storytelling to flow smoothly. Practise until you an recite it without issue.
- “I’m not sure this story is appropriate”
It may sound obvious, but always be mindful to choose the right story for your audience. It’s fine to push boundaries a little, but if you want your story to have the desired effect, consider how people listening will receive it.
- “What was the point of that again?”
While a good story can be fun and engaging, it’s important to remember the message behind it. Don’t get so carried away with the story that you lose the moral!
By avoiding these common mistakes, you can ensure that your storytelling is effective, engaging… and appropriate!
Next up, how to know if your audience are enjoying it?
9. How to measure the effectiveness of your storytelling
Before a big headlining show, comedians will make a point of testing their material at a number of smaller gigs. They carefully watch the audience’s reactions to different jokes, keeping what worked, and changing what does not.
In exactly the same way, the quickest way to improve your public speaking storytelling skills is to get feedback from your audience. Knowing whether your story is going down a storm, or going down like a led balloon, is an important distinction.
Here’s some feedback strategies for storytelling:
- Direct audience feedback: It’s not always feasible, but if you can get it, this post-game feedback is invaluable. By directly asking your audience for feedback, you have the chance to get detailed and specific thoughts on what they liked or disliked. This could be done with a post-speech survey, a live feedback app, or simply by asking for feedback at the end and then discussing it with people.
- Audience engagement: This type of feedback happens live and in the moment. If you can remain aware of your audience, it’s possible to gauge their level of engagement with your story. If they’re responsive to the ups and downs, you’ve got them. But equally, watch out for their attention waning. Quick tip: Don’t automatically think that silence, stillness or blank faces is a bad sign – it’s often what people do when they’re deeply engrossed.
- Behavioural change: Ultimately, the goal of public speaking is to inspire your audience to take action or make a change. If your audience takes action or changes their behaviour, you know your storytelling is hitting the mark.
By measuring the impact of your storytelling, you can track your improvement over time. Remember, no one became a master storyteller overnight. But by paying attention to your audience and continually polishing your performance, you can become a dab-hand at adding drama to your delivery.
Finally, let’s wrap up with some storytelling for public speakers Q&A.
10. Frequently asked questions about storytelling for public speakers:
- Can I use storytelling in any type of speech?
Yes, storytelling can be used in any type of speech, whether it’s a business presentation, a motivational speech, or a personal anecdote. The key is to make sure that the story is relevant to your message and helps to reinforce your overall point.
- How long should my story be?
The length of your story will depend on the context of your speech and the time you have available. Generally, it’s best to keep your story short and to the point, in order to keep your audience’s attention. A story can take as little as 30 seconds, or form the arch of a 60 minute speech.
- Should I memorise my story?
It’s important to be familiar with your story and know it well, but you don’t necessarily need to memorise it word-for-word. Instead, try to internalise the key points and practice telling the story in a natural and engaging way.
- What if my story doesn’t get the reaction I was hoping for?
Not every story will be a hit with every audience, so it’s important to be prepared for different reactions. If your story falls flat, try to stay positive and move on to the next part of your speech. You can always adjust your approach in future speeches based on audience feedback.
- Can I use humour in my storytelling?
Yes, humour can be a great way to engage your audience and make your speech more memorable. However, it’s important to use humour in a tasteful and appropriate way, and to make sure that it supports your overall message.
Bringing the story to a conclusion.
As we’ve seen, storytelling is a powerful and intrinsic part of public speaking. It enables us to share our ideas, beliefs and values in a way that other humans can innately resonate with, and remember.
Without stories, our communications can lack personality, emotion and connection. They become streams of information, facts and figures, without any narrative around which the audience can make sense of things.
Storytelling is a skill that requires practice. To do it well, you must ensure the vital elements of storytelling are included: relatable characters, engaging conflict, and a compelling message that people can take away from listening.
Nearly every kind of professional public speaking can benefit from storytelling. Whether you want to add a personal story to your business pitch, some humour to your next presentation, or high-stakes drama to a keynote – failing to harness the power of storytelling is a missed opportunity.
I hope this guide on storytelling for public speakers has proven useful.
What story will you tell?
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- Compelling Content
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