Take these vital steps for storytelling mastery

A New York Times writer recently served up a hearty helping of public speaking guidance, advice and strategic insight. Here’s how to spin a more compelling yarn.


There’s a saying in Alabama: “He who spins the yarn wins the barn.”

That’s not really a saying in Alabama, or anywhere, to my knowledge, though the nugget of truth in that made-up maxim is this: There is power in great storytelling.

For those interested in harnessing that power, Daniel McDermon of The New York Times recently wrote a piece titled “How to Tell a Story,” which offers a trove of tips and tricks to captivate an audience. The article divvies up guidance into four parts:

Who, what, when

Before crafting a speech or presentation, consider the needs, preferences and sensibilities of your audience. Regardless of the scene or situation, McDermon advises finding a “universal thread that everyone can relate to.” He also cites advice from Toastmasters veteran Aaron Beverly, who stresses the importance of repetition, practice and more practice.

As for the “what” your speech should consist of, McDermon offers insight from playwright Brenda Wong Aoki. She says to tell “personal stories” that can generate empathy, commonality and understanding.

Putting it together

The Times’ McDermon cites two essential storytelling C’s: characters and conflict.

Your story should feature a compelling character who faces some sort of conflict or obstacle, and the tension should build toward an exciting climax (yet another C-word).

McDermon suggests five steps to start formulating your speech:

  • Find someplace quiet and private, turn on a voice recorder … and just tell it in your own words.
  • Sit down, and listen to yourself.
  • Write it down just as you spoke it.
  • Go through and edit the text. Where can you tighten things up? What lines or words need to be emphasized?
  • Now repeat steps one through four until you feel that it’s as good as you can make it.
  • Then, find an audience (no matter how small), and ask for sincere, honest feedback.

Performance time

McDermon offers practical and tactical guidance for your big day:

  • Before you go on, if you’re still anxious, take a minute to yourself. Slow your breathing down, and move your body a little. Don’t be stiff.
  • It’s essential to vary your voice in tone, volume and pace.
  • If you’re giving a longer presentation, or you’re making a speech that involves multiple stories, you can use bulleted notes.
  • If you are using notes, be sure to practice enough so that it doesn’t sound like you’re just reading aloud.
  • If you lose your place, try not to panic. Take a breath, and compose yourself. Have a sip of water if you need it.
  • If you’re really frozen, you can try asking the audience a question.
  • Don’t mimic someone else’s style or verbal patterns.
  • Don’t overshare. There’s a difference between a relatable personal story, which helps connect you to the audience, and too much information.

Taking it further

The ability to share compelling stories in a variety of settings can bring benefits that stretch well beyond being the funny person at the bar.

As McDermon writes:

But building your storytelling skills is about more than just entertaining an audience. Your abilities can help you at work, in communicating clearly with colleagues, leading meetings, providing helpful feedback and articulating your career goals.

Becoming a better storyteller is mostly about willingness. If you put yourself out there and seize opportunities as they arise (or pull them out of thin air), you’ll build confidence, learn new skills, meet new people and quite possibly gain more respect and authority around the office.

Read the rest of the Times’ enlightening piece here.

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