You tell stories all the time to friends, family and coworkers. Stories about your vacation. About how your daughter scored the winning goal. About how your brother drank way too much beer at the family reunion and then what happened with your cousin and . . .

But although we all tell stories, many of us freeze up when it's time to use stories to communicate something professional or important. It's as if we took off the comfortable t-shirt and shorts and put on a formal, uncomfortable suit--we stiffen up and get stuffy. (Then you break out the PowerPoint and it goes downhill from there.)

So, step away from the slides and use these 7 tips to tell a compelling story:

1. Keep your focus on the audience. That means putting the audience's needs and preferences first. What is it about your story that will be meaningful to them? After all, the reason you are telling the story is because you want to get something across.

2. Have a single message. We've all had the experience of being at a party and finding ourselves trapped by someone who has launched into a long story about...well, it's impossible to tell. At a party, this is annoying but not devastating. You smile politely, slowly move away and get yourself another cheese puff. However, if you are trying to communicate something to, say, the leadership team, this kind of (pointless) storytelling is fatal. You need to make sure you get your concept across.

3. Structure your story. You want the story to flow. One way to do it is to divide your story into three parts:

  • In part 1, you introduce the characters and the obstacles they face.
  • Part 2 is devoted to how the characters deal with the problem.
  • And part 3 describes the resolution.

Fairy tales are great examples of classically structured stories:

  • They begin "Once upon a time" and introduce you to the person who the story is going to be about. (A poor but sweet girl.)
  • Then they introduce the conflict. (A wicked stepmother and a bunch of rotten stepsisters. A prince looking for true love. A fancy ball. A glass slipper.)
  • Finally, fairy tales describe how the problem was overcome. (In the whole kingdom, the glass slipper only fit her foot) and move to the resolution. (They lived happily ever after.)

4. Create characters. You don't need Superman or Winston Churchill to be the hero of your story: The main character can be you (as funny and flawed as you are), or even better, a member of your audience. But whenever possible, you want to give the audience someone to identify with or root for. (Think Cinderella.)

5. Include the facts. Every journalist answers five essential questions every time he or she writes a story: who, what, where, when and why. Even if it's as basic as a 50-word article announcing the opening of a new shipping facility, you need to make sure all five questions have been answered.

Here's an example to demonstrate how to tell a story while including all essential information. I've flagged the who, what, where, when and why:

It took three years, two different architects, and the facilities team working three shifts seven days a week for three months, but the new satellite shipping warehouse WHAT opened on schedule in Des Moines WHERE on Saturday WHEN.

"Being able to ship from the middle of the country will allow us to get our products to our customers faster," The WHY said Patrick Pass, senior vice president of logistics WHO at Acme Widgets. "This facility will give us an advantage over our competitors who only have shipping centers on the East or West coast."

6. Develop dramatic tension. What is going to occur? How will it end? Will it all turn out okay? What makes a story a story is action--something has to happen. That means that whether you are developing a long story or one you could tell in an elevator ride, the story must have a plot--something has to happen, or be poised to happen, otherwise your story is not a story.

7. Be aware of all the examples of stories around you and analyze what makes them so compelling: from the middle column of The Wall Street Journal's front page, to video games, to advertising, there are great stories everywhere. And they're great role models for how to tell your story.