How To Tell A Story That Will Engage, Not Enrage, Your Audience

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You are a storyteller, whether you think of yourself that way or not. But are you a good one? Later today or tomorrow, you will be telling a story to team members, clients or your supervisor. Here are seven crucial rules to ensure that the stories you tell in a business setting will engage, not enrage, your audience.

Be Brief

I will bet you a Midnight Dark Milky Way that you have been on the receiving end of a storyteller who is fascinated by the sound of his or her own voice. You feel a wave of sleepiness come over you as your interlocutor drones on and on about every minute detail that he or she finds endlessly fascinating. This person cares more about conveying information than connecting with another human being.

Do not be that kind of storyteller.

Challenge yourself to make your point with as few details as possible. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” says Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Brevity is also the soul of being a storyteller whom others will be glad to listen to.

A Story Has A Beginning, A Middle And An End

Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said, “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” That’s fine if you’re an avant-garde artist who wants to enthrall a small group of people and bedevil everyone else. For a story in a business setting, however, the traditional order of events works best.

Have A Point

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In the John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles, John Candy plays Del Griffth, a salesman for the fictitious American Light and Fixture company in the Shower Curtain Ring Division. Steve Martin is advertising executive Neal Page, who is forced by circumstances to listen to Del’s endless stories about life on the road. Neal eventually has enough, and at the end of a long and very funny tirade, he yells:

When you're telling these little stories, here's a good idea. Have a point. It makes it makes it so much more interesting for the listener!

For a business audience, the point of a story is usually to prompt an action, such as buying a product or service, adopting a new strategy or hiring or promoting an employee. Every moment of your story should be directed toward this end.

A perfect example of how to do this is illustrated by Donna Mack's talk, "Perceptions of Disability." She discusses why it is in a business's own interests to make its products and services available to people with disabilities. This includes ensuring that its website is intelligible to people who cannot see or hear. I heard her deliver this talk at the National Speakers Association's Winter Conference this year, and I still remember her closing remark: "Now go out there and do it!"

When I mentioned to Donna how powerful her final comment was, she refused to take credit for it. "Christine Cashen suggested that to me," she said. "In an earlier draft, I ended by saying, 'Now you're enlightened.' But that didn't go far enough." Cashen prompted Mack to get outside of her comfort zone and make the bold statement that made the talk both memorable and actionable.

Add ‘Become A Better Storyteller’ To Your To-Do List

The fact that you’ve read this far means you want to improve your storytelling. But this brief article can only hint at what you need to do to get better.

To stay current in your field, you read books and blogs, watch videos, LinkIn with colleagues and attend meetings. Why not add “Become a better storyteller” to your weekly to-do list? A Google search of “Best storytellers today” yields a rich and diverse list of podcasts, articles and videos from respectable sources. Reading, watching or listening to just one of these a week for the next several months will be richly rewarding if you act on the advice you get.

Although I've been a public speaker for several decades, I still practice my talk in my hotel room the night before every keynote. I record it with my MacBook's iMovie software and then review the footage to see what has worked and what I need to jettison. You'd be surprised at how quickly bad habits can come back if you're not careful.

Find Good Role Models

If the above suggestions are too much work, at least do the following. For the next week, pay close attention to every story someone tells you. What do you like, and what turns you off? How do you feel during each story?

A Story Is An Emotion Wrapped In An Idea

Robert McKee, the greatest teacher of the art of storytelling in the world, says that a story is an emotion wrapped in an idea. When I forget to keep this in mind during my talks, I notice a disturbing phenomenon in the audience: people start to go to sleep.

One of the most moving talks I've ever heard was a five-minute speech by Justin Constantine. I had to fight back tears as Justin talked about how he almost lost his life after being shot in the head as a U.S. Marine in Iraq. His talk, "You're Stronger Than You Think You Are," would have been fine had he just recited the facts of what happened. But it's the emotional content of his message that makes it unforgettable. Watch it here:

Practice In Front Of Children

One of the best keynote speakers I've heard is Pegine Echevarria. I asked her for advice about how to become a great storyteller, and she suggests practicing in front of children. "There is no better way to learn how to engage a diverse audience with a short attention span than to speak to children," she says. "You have to use your full body, a range of facial expressions and a variety of tones of voice to keep young people involved. The same is true for business audiences."

She emphasizes that she is not likening business leaders to kids. But what's striking about children is that they will let you know immediately if something is not working. They're honest. As such, they're the perfect audience to help you develop effective storytelling skills.


Being a good storyteller is an essential component of leading well. The very least your audience can expect from you is not to be put to sleep. But you can go beyond that and learn how to tell a moving story well, one that will entertain, enlighten and ultimately move people to act.

Note: These seven suggestions are not meant to be an exhaustive list of how to tell a story well. What would you add to this list? Let me know, and I may include it in a follow-up column.