Four Techniques for Better Storytelling

Four Techniques for Better Storytelling

Patricia Fripp keynote speaker and executive speech coach
Patricia Fripp keynote speaker and executive speech coach
By Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE, Executive speech coach, Keynote speaker

Everybody loves a good story. No matter what our culture, we grow up feeling that hearing a story is somehow a reward. Stories are how we learn values and our family’s legacy. When we’re in school, stories make history come alive. In business, we quickly discover that stories help us explain complex issues and are the best way to train or persuade.
Wise leaders, managers, and sales professionals do well to develop an arsenal of great stories that provide clear, dramatic examples. Good stories help differentiate us from our competition.

Steve Ball of Microsoft was in charge of finding the right music to be the boot-up sound for the Vista operating system. He brought in three professionals from the worlds of music and Hollywood for six seconds of sound! Steve explained the importance, saying, “Part of the sound was also used in our email program. That translated into this sound being heard more than any other music ever heard, including the Beatles.”

The professional that was chosen was Robert Fripp, legendary guitarist and a founding and ongoing member of the rock group King Crimson. Steve explains how the project leaders came to the decision: “All the artists created a sound that would have worked. However, in his presentation, Robert told the best story of how his music best represented Vista.”

Sometimes, the most unlikely people tell great stories. Often a coworker in the break room will have you in stitches as she regales you with tales of what happened taking the bus to work. Then the head of Finance walks in with a story, and halfway through, everyone says, “It’s time to get back to work!”

Happily, you don’t have to be born with the storytelling gene. The ability to tell a compelling story can be learned. Here are four techniques to help you turn simple stories into examples that will be remembered and frequently repeated.

1. Set the “scene.”
When did your story happen? Where is your story set? From whose eyes is the audience going to see the story? Stories usually work best when told in the order it actually happened. That makes it easier for you and the audience to remember it.
Help your audiences “see” the story that will support your message. When putting together a story, transport your audience to a different time and place so they can connect emotionally with your tale. For a speech, try writing out your story, then underline the words that describe the setting, the emotions, the sounds, smells, and sights that set your scene.
Once you’ve fixed your vivid scene in your mind, discard the written version and just describe it. (Never read to your audiences, formal or informal.)

2. Use a “hook” to keep your listeners listening.
Background is important; however, get to the action quickly or you’ll lose your audience. If the story is long, at least start with a “hook,” something that will keep your listener riveted to find out what is going to happen next.
• One sunny Sunday afternoon, my brother and I were driving through the countryside, singing along to the radio at the top of our lungs. Suddenly…..
• I wish you could have been there! We were in the middle of Little League season. The highpoint of summer for everyone in our town. My eight-year-old son was racing toward third base, the score tied, and all the kids and their parents were shouting at the top of their lungs. Literally, out of left field a large brown dog ran to the home plate and…
While you develop your example, add as many details as you can remember. After you have your outline, take the advice of Alfred Hitchcock: “A movie is like life with all the dull parts left out.” That means: cut anything that is irrelevant, boring, or does not build characters or drive the story forward. Rather than retelling the story…relive it!

3. Use shorter sentences or phrases.
Ron Arden, the late, great speech coach and stage director, told me, “The written word is for the eye, the spoken word is for the rhythm.” When we read, it is easy to look back and read over a paragraph again. When we speak, we need to keep the audience with us. Present information in shorter segments than you would write. This gives maximum opportunities for vocal and physical emphasis.

4. Make your story relevant to your point.
Even funny stories that you have read in a book will distract your message. If your stories have no connection to the content, the message will fall short.

A sales professional who impressed his managers and peers with a relevant story is Mark, a District Sales Manager from a biotech company. He was preparing to moderate a panel at the Las Vegas National Sales Meeting and was nervous with his new role in front of a 100-person audience. He had been moving fast to understand new products, clients, and products. His mission in the speech was to encourage the audience to embrace new jobs in different areas and to appreciate that they too would have to “move fast” to get up to speed. He had even included a quote about “moving fast” in his email signature line. But even with his own “fast moving,” Mark had no idea how to set the tone for the meeting.

He remembered an event that occurred during the previous year’s meeting. His wife had come in for the weekend, and they went to see the magician David Copperfield. Copperfield had made his wife disappear!

Using the storytelling techniques, Mark created a short, meaningful story on the moving fast theme that set the right tone for the panel and earned rave reviews.
“After last year’s sales meeting, (Gives the timeframe)
my wife Tammy came to Las Vegas for the weekend.
We went to see David Copperfield’s magic show. (Something happened)
Three quarters of the way through his performance, Copperfield threw two dozen balls into the audience. (Creating the visual scene)
Tammy caught one. (Using shorter sentences)
David said, “If you touched a ball, please come on the stage.”
He sat 24 people on bleachers and covered them with a tarp. (Hook: What’s next?)
Whoosh! Five seconds later, they were gone!
Suddenly, they appeared at the back of the room!
On the way out, I asked Tammy, “How did he do it?”
She said, “We are sworn to secrecy. However, we did have to move really fast!”
Mark reported, “The panel was a wild success, and everyone raved about my opening story!”
Learn how to speak in a powerful, persuasive way with Patricia Fripp’s learning materials.
About the Author
Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE, is a Hall of Fame speaker, executive speech coach, sales presentation skills trainer, and keynote speaker on sales, memorable presentation skills, and executive communication skills. She works with organizations and individuals who want to put their best foot forward by gaining powerful, persuasive, presentation skills. She builds leaders, transforms sales teams, and delights audiences. She is Past-President of the National Speakers Association. To learn more about Patricia, contact her at, (415) 753-6556, twitter@PFripp, or  Speaking school information Articles, blogs, podcasts, special reports