Skilled storytelling is essential to capturing an audience's attention. It's a must have before attempting to sell, teach, or entertain and is critical in every business. About a year ago, I became intensely interested in storytelling for reasons that I share below. But first, here are the top 5 tips for telling stories that work for me.

  1. Use easy but proven structures to draft your stories. This article by Jenn Tardif on 99U presents five elements that every story should include. What makes the article exceptionally helpful is the description of each element coupled with an example. I converted this into a table and use it as a starting point for all of my written stories.
  2. Take classes (or find noncritical practice audiences). I've yet to take one of these courses from Story District in Washington, DC, but I plan to in the near future. Friends who have completed the program found the tips and techniques helpful but also enjoyed having a friendly, low-stakes audience on which to practice their storytelling chops.
  3. Listen with two ears--one ear focused on absorbing and enjoying the content and the other ear focused on how the teller unpacks the information. I'm a huge Radiolab fan, as well as the Serial podcast series. Here's a list of my favorite storytelling podcasts (which can be a welcome change of pace on the treadmill when you're over your playlist).
  4. Know that you have stories to tell. I'm convinced at times that I have no stories--at least, no interesting ones. Like zero. None. Overcoming this defeatist attitude requires that you periodically take a neutral observer's perspective on your own life and work. Many of us apply a pretty harsh filter on our experiences and weed out personal stories that other people would find instructive or relevant.
  5. Ethically and enthusiastically embellish. My grandmother had a way of artfully remembering moments in her life. She'd then recount these events in a way that didn't exactly stand up to undressed facts. She never did this with a hint of malice or intended harm. It was for entertainment, for engagement, and for attention. When she was (often) teased by her adult children, she'd say, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." We know that many of the good business stories we hear didn't happen precisely as told. First, check the context in which you're telling your story. Assuming you're not on the stand or stretching the truth beyond what you can deliver, loosen up a bit.

So, why did improving my skills in storytelling become a priority for me? Well, there's nothing like good old fashioned public embarrassment to motivate action.

I was the invited guest speaker on the power of positive communications. The director hired me because she believed the communication among her staff was negative and broken. Budget stresses and rapidly changing demands had caused staff to develop bad habits in how they spoke to each other. Things had gotten ugly.

To prepare, I'd assembled dozens of slides on the what and the how of positive communications. But I wanted to start with the why. And I wanted the why to come from a personal story about the time I was the crappiest manager ever (in the history of the world). Unfortunately, my ability to tell this story in a way that connected with this audience did not happen. I started, I jumped around, I included random and unrelated tidbits, and then I just stopped talking.

One hundred people sat there blinking at me (politely blinking, really). I could tell that they wanted to glean something from this clearly painful personal account, but they couldn't find a thread of relevance. So, I panicked and just launched into my "how to" slides. It was confusing for them, embarrassing for me, and a lost opportunity for us all. It was a situation that I was determined not to repeat. Since that day, I've been collecting storytelling tips, articles, and books like Shawn Coyle's Story Grid because I'm determined to tell stories well and stories that matter.