5 surefire ways to tell your story horrendously

These storytelling mistakes will cause your audience to disengage—or never engage in the first place. Here are common blunders that rookies and veterans alike should avoid.

What are the most common mistakes beginners make?

Following are five that I see over and over again.

1. In trying for shock value, they deprive their listeners of interest. Rookie storytellers want to shock their audiences. Perhaps it’s the fear of losing their audiences, or perhaps it’s a diet of too many long-form TV shows in which the writers introduce surprise after surprise to keep us watching for hours and hours.

Whatever the cause, I see the result all the time—the sudden veer in one direction or another without any preparation. Consider the TV writer who suddenly reveals that a character has been dead for the entire series, or that it was all a dream or the like.

What makes a speech—like a story—interesting over its entire length is the tension between fulfillment of expectation and the twist on convention. In other words, you want to signal where you’re headed so your audience can delight in anticipating it. Deprive them of that pleasure, and they have little reason to hang in there with you for the long haul.

2. In a desire to be authentic, they give us too much information. None of us is as interested in each other’s stories as we are in our own. If it’s not absolutely necessary for the comprehension of your main message, take it out.

We don’t care about the seven different kinds of banana blight. We care only whether our fruit will be delivered on time and at a reasonable price.

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3. In a desire to interest a wide audience, they fail to go deep. The paradox inherent in great storytelling is that if you do it right, we’ll listen to you nearly forever—we can’t get enough. When a story is well told, as with Netflix’s “House of Cards,” or HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” we can’t wait for the next season, we devour it when it comes, and we form fan clubs to get us through the wait until the next series.

That’s because those kinds of stories have big enough stakes and deep enough characters. We care about them and their trials, and we want to know what happens to them. Indeed, we tell stories beyond the canonical through fan fiction. We want more of the storyline so much that we make more.

4. In a fear of self-disclosure, they fail to tell us the most important things. It’s hard to go deep with a character, because to do so means testing them severely and showing them at their best and their worst—at moments of extreme struggle, failure and uncertainty.

Those are embarrassing moments and moments we instinctively shy away from, but those cringe-worthy episodes are what the rest of us want to hear about. We humans are a bit perverse in that way.

5. In a wish to appear successful, they hide their failures. A special trap of mistake No. 4, hiding failure is the signal most disengaging mistake speakers make. They stand up in front of an audience, having been introduced as “the best salesperson in the Western Hemisphere for three years in a row!” and then proceed to tell us how amazing they are and how they did it.

That’s not what we care about. We want to know that they failed, and how they kept going when they did. That is authenticity and the stuff of speechmaking magic.

Don’t make these mistakes in your presentations. I made them all as I learned public speaking—that way you don’t have to.

A version of this article first appeared on Public Words.

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