How To Tell A Story

I remember the first time someone impressed upon me the usefulness of storytelling. Back in 2000 a researcher came to Razorfish to study how we worked in order to improve our knowledge sharing. He told me how Secret Service agents studied storytelling so that, if they suddenly found themselves in the back of a car with the President for 5-minutes, they could quickly summarize all the pertinent facts about a situation in a format that was more likely to be absorbed.

And now, eight years later, I’m finally getting around to working on my storytelling skills. Barry McWilliams wrote a great set of guidelines for storytelling in his Effective Storytelling: A manual for beginners

Characteristics of a good story:

  • A single theme, clearly defined
  • A well developed plot
  • Style: vivid word pictures, pleasing sounds and rhythm
  • Characterization
  • Faithful to source
  • Dramatic appeal
  • Appropriateness to listeners

Adapting to our audiences:

  1. Take the story as close to them as you can.
  2. Keep it brief and simple
  3. Stimulate their senses so they feel, smell, touch and listen and see vivid pictures.
  4. Describe the characters and settings, and help them sympathize with the character’s feelings.
  5. Aim your story at the less experienced when telling to a mixed audience

Once you settle on a story, you will want to spend plenty of time with it. It will take a considerable period of time and a number of tellings before a new story becomes your own.

  1. Read the story several times, first for pleasure, then with concentration.
  2. Analyze its appeal, the word pictures you want your listeners to see, and the mood you wish to create.
  3. Research its background and cultural meanings.
  4. Live with your story until the characters and setting become as real to you as people and places you know.
  5. Visualize it! Imagine sounds, tastes, scents, colors. Only when you see the story vividly yourself can you make your audience see it!

Learning the Story

  • Learn the story as a whole rather than in fragments. Master, and then simplify, its structure to a simple outline of scenes. Don’t try to memorize it, though you should always know your first and last lines by heart!
  • Map out the story line: The Beginning, which sets the stage and introduces the characters and conflict; the Body, in which the conflict builds up to the Climax; and the Resolution of the conflict. Observe how the action starts, how it accelerates, repetitions in actions and how and where the transitions occur.
  • Absorb the style of the story: To retain the original flavor and vigor, learn the characteristic phrases which recur throughout the story. Observe the sentence structure, phrases, unusual words and expressions.
  • Practice the story often – to the mirror, your cat, driving in the car, with friends, or anyone who will listen. Even when telling an old and familiar story, you must use imagination and all the storyteller’s skills to make it come alive. Use your imagination to make the story come alive as you prepare.


  1. Delivery elements: Sincerity and whole heartedness (Be earnest!),
  2. Enthusiasm (This does not mean artificial or noisy excitement),
  3. Animation (in your gestures, voice, facial expressions)

Particular Oral Storytelling Skills:
A Storyteller’s skills include: emphasis, repetition, transition, pause and proportion.

  1. Dialog should make use of different voices for different characters and using the Storytelling “V” – where you will shift your facing (or posture) as the dialog switches from character to character.
  1. Use your voice to create the atmosphere or tension as the story progresses.
  1. Use gestures and facial expressions add much to the visualization of the story. Be sure they are appropriate and natural. Practice them!
  1. Pacing involves both the volume and rate at which you speak, and the progression of the action in the story. Dialog slows a story’s pace down, while narrating action speeds it up.
  1. Repetition and Exaggeration have always been basic elements of story telling.

Some attention keepers:
Many factors affect the attention of your listeners. A storyteller always needs to be sensitive to his audience and may need to regain their attention before continuing.

  1. Involvement or participation. Use volunteer(s) from the audience in your story. Or have the audience participate in hand motions or making sound effects. Or responding with “chants” or refrains
  2. A distinct change in your pace, voice, or mood.
  3. An unusual or unexpected twist in the narration.
  4. Throw-away lines or asides work well as does comic relief.


  1. Love it. Sometimes I find myself coming to the story side almost to the fault of the content. Your measured approach are great balancing guidelines.

  2. Excellent post. Really covers all the basics and can apply to not just telling a story, but understanding audiences at a deeper and more engaging level.

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