Everyone loves a story. Personal anecdotes bring people together and strengthen ties with your listeners. Whether you’re in a staff meeting, pitching to a client, or interviewing for a job, telling a story about yourself can create that magical bond with your audience.
But stories can go off the rails very easily, and you can end up boring (or even insulting) a new connection. For maximum impact, keep these six secrets of good storytelling in mind.
1. Be brief
How many times have we heard a colleague share a story that goes on, and on, and on, with the speaker oblivious of the fact that they are rambling? Science tells us that talking about ourselves releases dopamine, the pleasure hormone. But that can be a dangerous drug.
Suppose you’re in a job interview and the recruiter says, “Tell me about a problem you solved.” You get excited and go on about every facet of the problem you solved. Five minutes later you’re still speaking—but now you’ve lost your audience (and job).
So, keep your narrative short. Don’t turn a short story into a long and winding verbal road.
2. Engage the listener’s emotions
Master storyteller David Sedaris emphasizes that the main character in a good story is someone the audience can relate to. The best stories get listeners involved in the tale emotionally.
Suppose you’re leading a meeting and you’re a few minutes late. You come in breathless. You could launch into the first item on the agenda, but instead you apologize and tell a story about how you were walking your French bulldog and someone tried to grab that little pup in an off-leash park. You quickly picked up your dog and, after a brief struggle, walked away with him in your arms. Wow, you are still reeling from the incident.
You have a captive audience—they are with you all the way. And now you move to your business at hand with an audience that loves you.
3. Make a point
Every story should make a point. Otherwise, it goes nowhere and the listener wonders why you’re sharing the episode. And the best point to make is one that is inspiring and uplifting.
Suppose your colleague comes into your office and is heartbroken because she has lost out on a job. A good response (along with an expression of sympathy) might be telling her about a time you lost out on a new job, only to discover that the next one you applied for was an even better fit.
Telling stories that inspire with a clear, uplifting point is a great skill. If your team has lost out on a big sale, tell them about when you lost your first big sale and what you learned from that. Or, if you’re paying tribute to an employee who is leaving the firm, tell a story about how inspired you were when you first met her and build your remarks from there.
4. Let it flow
A good story has a narrative flow. The simplest way of thinking about flow is to build your story chronologically: with a past, present, and future.
If you are in a job interview for an HR position and are asked why you want the job, you might develop this flow:
- Past: “I’ve always loved people, and that’s why I’m passionate about this job in HR. I was outgoing and extrovertish even when young.”
- Present: “In my last two HR positions, I have developed programs that make employees feel safe and engaged. One program I am particularly proud of is our Mental Health offering.”
- Future: “This job is my dream job, and as an HR professional I know I would be a great fit for this role.”
This sequential or chronological pattern is a great one to choose, but you can also build your story around steps in a process, or problem/solution, or situation/response.
5. Tell it well
Storytelling is a skill and success comes from both what you say and how you say it. So, how should you tell your story?
Speak with enthusiasm, but don’t overdo your emotions. You want your audience to emote or laugh or get excited. If you do all those things, they won’t.
Don’t rush your delivery. Instead, pause frequently to give your audience time to process what you are saying and react to it. Speaking slowly, too, creates an aura of suspense.
Finally, be genuine, and show that you’re delivering something that’s meaningful to you. The audience will respond in kind.
6. End with action
Every story you tell about yourself should end with some kind of action or resolution. If you are mentoring someone and you’re sharing a story about what you learned from your first boss, end with an upbeat and meaningful action.
Suppose you learned from your first boss how to show confidence when speaking to those in power. You might conclude: “And so, what I learned, and what I’d like to see you do, is to lead no matter what your position in the company.”
The end is action that embodies the moral of the story—the lesson learned.