The Ultimate Guide to Storytelling

Let’s picture the scene. You are sitting in an audience waiting for the next presentation to begin. For the past hour your time has been consumed by data, bullets and lots of technical information. Now imagine the next speaker takes to the stage and launches into a PowerPoint presentation full of complex text and cluttered graphs.

How do you feel? Probably a little uninspired?

The theory of cognitive load explains that people’s minds become overloaded if required to process too much information. Because of this it’s almost certain that you won’t remember a single thing from the experience.

There has to be a better way!

The Power of Storytelling

Enter storytelling. Stories are easier to recall because they activate lots of different parts of the human brain – in a sense, listeners experience the story. And not only is your audience more likely to remember a story more easily than facts and figures, a story also stands a greater chance of inspiring action when you walk off the stage.


1) Crafting a Story

When it comes to crafting a memorable story you should start by asking yourself:

  • What am I really trying to accomplish?
  • What one principle is most central to my speech?

The answer to these questions is your speech purpose. Having a speech purpose is what will bring your story or stories to life when you speak.

Secondly you must chose a story with universal appeal. The real test of a great story should be that everyone listening to it feels that it is their own story.

Each story needs a beginning, middle and an end

  • The beginning should be brief, introducing characters, the setting and the problem
  • The middle of the story is where that problem takes over
  • The ending should also be brief, telling the audience the resolution

2) Telling a Story

Rule number one when delivering a story is to keep it short. If you ramble on for too long, the impact is lost and you will stray too far from the original purpose.


A story needs to be rehearsed, not read. Good storytelling is active and direct. Reading will not give you immediate contact with the audience because you have to keep returning to a text. The more practice time you devote to the speech the better it’ll be.

Vocal variety is hugely powerful in storytelling. Vocal variety is focused on pace, pitch, power and pause. For example you can use different voices for different characters in the story. In addition you can plan pauses at dramatic moments in the story, and stress a word for extra emphasis.

Storytelling Advice from the Stars

In my interview with Nancy Duarte, the presentation design expert shares the following advice for telling stories in presentations:

If you’re describing a new concept, offer a story from your own life to give context. We’re all human, and we’re motivated by relating to others and feeling a bond with each other. Show how you’ve transformed. The power of a great story is that the protagonist transforms. That means, that as the presenter, if you plan to tell a story, you will be exposing that you’re flawed in some way. That’s hard. A story isn’t interesting unless it’s told in a way that reveals how a likeable person, encountered hardship and then emerged transformed.


Garr Reynolds echoed the following advice in another interview post:

It’s important to note that although we’re dealing with facts there also needs to be a human aspect to our presentation. People are emotional creatures. The best stories always have a conflict, a struggle with that conflict (or problem) and ultimately a resolution (a solution). If you think about the best movies, they almost always use a form of the heroes’ journey. That is key in a successful story.

Final Words

Humans are hardwired for stories. As children we loved listening to stories and telling them. As adults we still do. So deliver a presentation that captures the hearts and heads of your audience by telling a story in your next speech. Both you and your audience will be glad you did!

Read my follow up post about the Hero’s Journey Approach to Storytelling here