How to tell stories like a pro

Note: This article is one of a series originally written by Meg Lightheart in the run-up to TCUK 2014.

Having coached thousands of presentations, the most reliable indicator of if someone is going to be an engaging presenter is: Do they tell proper stories from their life?

Why you must put more stories into your presentation

Stories are a subtle way of talking about your experience.

One of the phrases I dread the most in a presentation, especially at the beginning, is, “Let me start by telling you a little bit about my history.” (Trumped only by “Let me start by giving you some history of the project.”)

Now, you are right that one of the silent questions people have about you is “Who is this person and why are they qualified to speak to me on this topic?” There are two truly effective ways of answering this question.

1. Show you understand what people are thinking and feeling about your topic.

2. Tell stories that are appropriate to your topic that also show the projects you’ve worked on, the problems you’ve solved, the clients you’ve worked with.

As you’re going over the story mining you’ve been doing, find examples that help to build your credibility, but kind of by the backdoor, as it were.

You come across as experienced.

Experienced people have experiences to share. If you share your experiences, people remember you as experienced.

Stories are memorable for you.

With a only a tiny bit of practice, all you need in your notes is a keyword to remind you of the whole story you’re going to tell, as opposed to having to remember a bunch of facts.

Stories are memorable for them.

It’s almost a truism to say that people don’t always remember the facts, but they remember the stories. Why do you think that case studies and detailed testimonials feature so heavily in marketing material? And magazines! Whenever a magazine is looking at an issue, they almost always find the ‘human’ side of it by telling it through someone’s story. Stories are naturally memorable.

We are hungry for stories.

As human beings, we hunger for stories. How much of our spare time is spent listening to stories, reading stories, telling stories? Think movies, novels, gossip. In fact, story is one of the universals in every human culture.

Our sense of interest is designed for stories.

In fact, I might go so far as to say that our sense of interest is designed for story, if not by story. So in telling stories, you’re giving yourself the best chance of being perceived as interesting, because you’re using the thing that our minds are most easily interested in, the thing that is the epitome, the essence of interest: story.

The three levels of presentation story zoom.

I spend a lot of time with clients working on their ability to tell stories smoothly and in a way that adds to their credibility.

A major issue I see is that people default to the wrong zoom level when telling stories. Functionally, there are three levels of story zoom, each with a different difficulty, impact and risk.

1. Snippet

Zoom: looking at the story from very far away
Difficulty level: easy
Impact: minor
Risk: low

Snippets are what inexperienced storytellers default to when I initially ask them to tell stories. They’re what presenters point to when I say to them, “Where were the stories?” They are the lowest risk but also lowest impact way of introducing your experience.

Snippets are one to four sentence examples of things that have happened to the speaker.

They go something like:

We had a client who got into trouble doing this. As soon as she started implementing this system, she soon saw things turn around.

I mean, it’s alright. But it’s hardly attention-grabbing, and doesn’t give your listeners much to get their teeth into, as it were.

Snippets are good for a bit of spice, and perhaps a bit of variety, but need to not be the only form of stories in your presentation.

2. Full event

Zoom: eye level
Difficulty level: medium
Impact: significant
Risk: medium

Full events are stories, about a specific event that generally happened on a specific day, or series of days. Whatever, you can date it. It’s about a time you faced a specific problem, and came out the other side. Normally between 1 and 4 minutes to tell.

Full events are the zoom level that fascinating, natural speakers use.

3. Extended setpiece

Zoom: super close-up
Difficulty level: harrrrd
Impact: potentially life-changing
Risk: very high

Extended stories take maybe ten minutes or more to tell. They are highly practiced, and can sometimes be the whole of a presentation. “Inspirational” speakers – ex-sportspeople, mountaineers, etc – often use them as the base for their spiel.

Every now and again, they are beautifully done, and can provide a very immediate and moving message that drives home deeply.

Mostly, they come off as somewhat overrehearsed, stretching a point, or just told for the sake of being told.

Almost categorically, I would recommend you avoid these stories – the risk of screwing up is much too high.

Types of story

The type of story you tell depends on your purpose. Here are a couple of the major types to get your thinking going.

Warning story

A warning story is a way of setting a limit, of saying “If you go all the way over here, bad things will happen.” For example, if you’re recommending people adopt a certain standard, tell a story of a disaster that happened when you didn’t follow that standard. (This might be an occasion for using something you were just involved in, rather than as the main protagonist, but make sure you’re not regugitating an urban myth.)

To be compelling, the story needs to demonstrate how not following your advice means your listeners will lose something important to them. (Go back to your presentation prep when you were thinking about what your listeners need and value.)

Benefits story

This is the flipside of the warning story. Talk about a time when you followed your recommendation and things turned out really well. Again, make sure the things you gain are things that your listeners value. Talking about a time when you learned a mnemonic for an apostrophe rule might be super-appropriate to other writers/grammar mavens, for others maybe not so much.

Analogy story.

When you’re explaining something your listeners may find strange or complex, that’s when you need an analogy. Like those movie pitches that go “It’s like Rocky III meets Avatar ON A SUBMARINE” it gives people something to grasp, something from their current experience. Analogies start “It’s a bit like…”

Analogy stories start “It’s a bit like when I…”

To choose an analogy story you go:

1. What aspects of this topic need to be more familiar to my listeners?
2. What else that they are familiar with shares one or more of those qualities?
3. What has happened to me from that familiar domain that helps to highlight that quality?

Don’t dismiss non-work examples, here.

The four parts of an Event Story

I mainly want you telling Full Events, or what me might call Event Stories. There are four parts to telling a story that grabs people. It almost doesn’t matter how ‘interesting’ or ‘significant’ the story seems to you. If you include these elements (and emphasise them in the way I’m going to suggest later on) you’ll have a story that holds people’s attention.

1. Context

Start by saying when this story happened, where you were, and who you were with and what you were doing. Simple.

2. Problem

The thing that makes it a story is there is a problem that you solved. Tell us about the problem. why was it particularly important or hard for you in the moment?

3. Actions

What sequence of actions did you take?

4. Result

End with the happy (or sad) result.

Follow these rules like a recipe. Make sure you have all four ingredients, in that sequence, and you’ll be, as they say, golden.

The things you must never do when telling a story in a presentation

Don’t make it up

It’s hard to tell a story that isn’t yours and your listeners will feel it. Also, why are you making this hard on yourself? Find a story that fits the point you’re trying to make and tell that one.

Don’t embellish

There is no need to add more drama in. I’ve heard thousands of stories in presentations, and believe me, if you have the four ingredients above in the right order, your story is fine. If you want to amp it up, I’ve got some advice for you in the next section, but embellishment or exaggeration are not the way. Plus, if people find out that you’re not telling the whole truth, they can feel betrayed.

Don’t sabotage yourself

Too often I see presenters decide they’re going to tell a story, then they begin doubting their story halfway through. They being to comment or apologise for how ‘boring’ their story is, they start skipping around the four ingredients, or they miss things out to speed through it. Then – ta daa! – their story is crappy. Don’t do this, eh? If you’ve started in on your story, follow the four ingredients all the way through to the end.

Mistakes of inexperienced storytellers

There are three easy ways to make your story sound professional. Avoid these mistakes and your stories will go up in their impact.

Not enough context

Make sure you set the story in it’s temporal context. That is, tell us when, where, who, what. Don’t take off before we’re on board, okay? Without this context, we don’t feel like we’re listening to a story, and so none of us get the benefit.

Not enough significance.

Ever go to a movie and find the plot less than gripping? Get to the end and find it mildly unsatisfying? That will almost definitely be because the writer didn’t make their characters go through enough hard times. Stories that grip us are when we really see that the main character (that’ll be you) is really up against it.

I’ve heard great stories about insignificant events. Tiling the bathroom, getting a chest of drawers up three flights of stairs, getting a new running habit. Stories do not have to be life-alteringly massive to be engaging during a presentation. We have to understand why, in that moment, this problem was hard. We have to understand why, in that moment, this problem was important for you to solve. Make the stakes really clear.

If you show us why this was important to you, we’ll be rooting for you when you work on solving it.

Result is inconclusive.

Don’t wimp out on telling us how things ended up. If it’s a warning story, describe the repercussions. Don’t exaggerate, but describe. If it’s a benefit story, let us really see the happy ending.

Story is a complex beast.

Writers work their whole life making stories that really resonate. There is a lot involved in such long-form stories. For presentations, however, particularly for Event Stories, follow this advice and your impact will rocket up, just from talking on things you know about. Good, eh?


Meg Lightheart, the author of Presentation Now: Prepare a perfect presentation in less than 3 hours (Pearson 2015) is the UK’s leading complex-topic presentation coach. This article is one of a series Meg wrote in the run-up to TCUK 2014 where they gave a workshop on presentation planning. If you ever want some one-to-one help with presentations, check out Meg is also an unrepentant overtweeter at @megalightheart.

Check out all the articles in this series: