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Your Top 6 Storytelling Questions (Answered by an Expert Storyteller)

Six people standing side by side communicating and asking questions

In our recent webinar, “Persuading Your Audience Through Story” with Duarte content developers and speaker coaches Jeff Davenport and Doug Neff, we received great audience questions about the art of storytelling. Following, Jeff answers six of the most asked questions we weren’t able to answer live.

How do you introduce stories seamlessly into presentations? Do you think it’s helpful to frame it with: “Let me tell you a brief story…” so they lean in to hear the story?

When you tell your audience you’re about to tell them a story, you get their attention. Their ears will perk up because they’re hungry for a change-up—especially if the story is coming in the middle of a lot of facts, data, and statements. “Let me tell you a story” is like ringing a dinner bell on a ranch.

That said, don’t feel like it’s necessary to call out the fact you’re going into “storytelling mode” every time. Sometimes, this can feel a little clunky and obvious.

Instead, give your audience a bit more context around why you’re telling the story you’re telling. “I want to tell you how this played out for a different customer…” or “We’ve faced a similar situation in the past…” or “Here’s a time an organization chose not to change…”

By articulating the connective tissue between what comes before the story you’re going to tell and the story itself, you put your listeners in the right frame of mind for them to understand why you’re telling this specific story.

Do you ever create fictional stories, or should they be built on a real event? Would it be morally wrong to make up a story?

It would be morally and ethically wrong to make up a story and present it as fact. This may seem like a “duh” statement, but it bears stating. If you want to tell a story to persuade an audience and you don’t have one based in truth, you may need to reconsider if your idea is worth sharing.

However, you can use fictional stories—movies, TV shows, novels—to make your point. If you want to inspire your team in the midst of a struggle and your goal is to make everyone realize they’re important, a story about Frodo, one small Hobbit who made a difference for all of Middle Earth in “The Lord of The Rings,” would be appropriate.

If you want to bring hope in the midst of a challenging season, you might tell your team how Andy Dufresne held onto hope during trying circumstances in “The Shawshank Redemption.”

Or if you want your co-workers to know they can accomplish great things together, you may reference Harry Potter, Ron, and Hermione working together with their complementary gifts.

In these situations, you’re not making up a story to fit the need. You’re using shared cultural references to help your listeners draw on emotions felt when previously watching or reading those stories.

But be careful. Don’t assume everyone has seen or read what you’re referencing. You might be shocked how many young professionals have never seen Star Wars! This doesn’t mean everyone must have knowledge of the story you reference. Just be sure to provide context on the story as best you can in the time allotted.

One caveat on making up stories: you can make one up if the concept is rooted in reality and you say it’s made up. “Let’s say…” or “Imagine…” are easy ways to point this out before you go into the story.

You could use this to describe hypothetical customers, teams, or situations. “Let’s say a customer wanted to start using this product immediately. They would…” or “Imagine we don’t change the way we work. What would happen?”

In short: don’t make up stories without first telling your audiences they’re hypothetical.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for making sure an audience is engaged throughout a story? Sometimes just an interesting topic doesn’t cut it!

I sure do: deliver it well.

Even the most powerful statistics, data points, quotes, or statements can fall on bored, deaf ears when communicated without passion, energy, or dynamism. If you want to keep your audience interested and engaged when you tell a story, lean into it and deliver it like it’s actually interesting!

One way to practice this is by reading storybooks to children. Children don’t want to just hear a story—they want to feel a story. They only really feel a story when the reader of the story delivers it appropriately and dynamically.

This means punching key words, moving your hands and body to show what you’re saying, putting on dramatic pauses, and using your face to show what you want the kiddo to feel in the moment.

Now, does this mean you tell a story about your organization’s Q3 struggles to the board in the same way you’d talk to a four-year-old? No. Of course not. But it does mean you use the same delivery principles for engaging a kid in a story, just with the levels turned down a bit.

Punch key words. Move your hands to show what you’re saying. Put in pauses. Help your listeners know what to feel by showing emotion yourself. Just do it on level 3 or 4 rather than 10.

This takes practice, but it’s worth the effort. A good rule of thumb is to deliver a story to your listeners the way you’d want a speaker to deliver a story to you.

Any guidance on telling stories when you have to deliver “bad” news?

Let’s say (see? I’m going to describe a hypothetical situation) you have to tell your team about budget cuts. These cuts mean the team will have to work harder and smarter to do the same tasks.

That’s a tough message to deliver. There’s not a lot of upside (no one is listening and thinking, “Yes! Less!”).

The best question to ask yourself, as the communicator, is: “What do I want to persuade my listeners to do?”

One answer might be: “I don’t want them to give up hope. I want them to understand there’s a challenge before us, but it’s something we can push through and overcome. I want to even—gasp—inspire them.”

If that’s your goal, you should think about what story you could tell to inspire them. You might think about instances in your own personal life when you overcame adversity. Or when the organization went through a hard time but came out better on the other side. Maybe you tap into a time when the team overcame a particularly daunting challenge themselves.

The last example would be a powerful story to tell. It would communicate to your listeners, “Hey… I know this is hard. I know this is challenging. But we’ve gone through something similar—not exactly the same, but similar—before. How’d we do it? What tools did we use or strategies did we put in place to help us succeed?”

When you tell that story, your audience has a higher likelihood of walking away with some hope rather than not hearing a story and thinking, “Oh boy. This is gonna be hard. I have no idea how we’re going to do this—or even if we can do this.”

Also, maybe by structuring how the “bad news” came to be as a story can help your listeners understand why the bad news exists in the first place.

Saying, “We need to lay off 10% of our workforce” is a lot different than describing the organization’s goals and obstacles and how the leadership came to the conclusion of layoffs. When you tell it as a delicately told, well-structured story, you might actually build a little empathy in your listeners for the team having to make the challenging decision.

Can you “over story” the people you lead?”

Storytelling is like salt. None, and the food is bland. Too much, and you’ve ruined the dish.

What would it look like to “over story”? Imagine a communicator who rarely, if ever, communicates hard, concrete data, ideas, or statements. Everything is a story. An actual story, a hypothetical story, a story drawn from pop culture, etc.

If all you heard from a communicator was stories, they might engage, entertain, or help you see their point of view. But without more logic-based appeals, those stories could eventually backfire. You might take them less seriously without hard data to back up their stories.

Most speakers are far from being in danger of telling too many stories. Instead, most speakers need to tell more stories.

Tell stories. Be selective when you tell them. And tell them well.

What would you say to a nervous presenter you are coaching to convince them to use story?

Most communicators, even highly experienced ones, get nervous when they need to communicate in an unfamiliar manner. We’re comfortable staying in our “zone,” doing what’s comfortable, and relying on tactics which worked in the past. When I challenge a communicator to expand their communication skills and add a new one—like storytelling—it can upset their confident applecart and have them on their heels.

Unless a communicator challenges themselves to learn new skills and add fresh communication methods to their repertoire, they will miss out on more effective, transformative communication moments.

So, when I challenge someone who isn’t used to telling stories to tell one, I start with empathy. “Look, I know this isn’t how you’re used to addressing this audience. Normally, you rely on facts and statements. This is different and it will be hard. That’s okay. We’re going to push through the discomfort and work on how to tell this story really, really well.”

Next, I work with the speaker on the story and help them uncover why this story is the right story to tell. Then, I work on story structure by identifying key elements and ordering them effectively. Next, I tell the story back to the speaker so they can hear how it sounds. We then tweak and alter it until it feels just right.

Lastly, I work with them on delivery. This is when the story takes flight and feels like it has breath. I help them hit key points so the audience feels the emotions the story demands. We zero in on those suspense spots designed to make the listener lean in and listen more closely. I help them stick the landing at the end, ensuring the point of the story is clearly articulated.

Once we’ve practiced a few times, the speaker starts to truly “feel” the story and see how it will impact their audience. Like any skill, storytelling takes practice. And with practice comes ability. Ability, though, is accompanied by confidence and waning nerves.

If you’re nervous to tell a story, identify the most important elements to communicate, structure it well, and practice telling it. This may be a new communication muscle for you, but over time, it can become second nature.

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Illustrated by Trami Truong