Be Inspired

Storytelling Techniques Used By the World’s Greatest Speakers

By Peri Elmokadem
10 Min Read
storytelling techniques quote

Stories captivate audiences like nothing else. Whether you want to inspire your students,employees, or listeners, here are 6 storytelling techniques that can help you effectively communicate a message and move audiences to a specific action.

Tomonari Ishiguro was only 26 when he gave his first TED talk, but his inexperience didn’t keep him from delivering a moving performance.

Although a bit nervous, he started his presentation by admitting that when he was 14, he felt like he would never become anything in life.

Constantly bullied by the bigger kids at school, he had low self­ esteem and escaped from his problems by withdrawing to the confines of his mind.

There, he would dream of one day being treated like a hero­­like the other boys at his school who were good at sports.

But he was not like them. He was not very skilled at any sport … or so he had thought.

One day, he bought a yo­yo and tried the simplest tricks, but failed at all of them.

He persisted. After one week of practicing, he started getting better. His throws started to become smoother, and he thought to himself, “For the first time in my life, I’ve found something I think I’m good at.”

He started practicing more and more­­until the yo­yo became his obsession. One day, he decided we would become the world’s greatest yo­yoer.

And he did.

In 2001, at the age of 18, he won the World Yo­Yo Contest. It was a dream come true. Yet, it lasted for only a moment. Back in Japan, his accomplishment meant little and he wasn’t treated like a world champion­­much less like a hero.

Feeling defeated, he decided to become a systems engineer­­like many of his peers. But he couldn’t completely shake the thought of becoming a spectacular yo­yo performer like those in Cirque du Soleil.

One day, he could no longer resist that nagging idea at the back of his mind and he quit his job, determined to start learning classical ballet, acrobatics, and jazz dance.

Although as a younger boy, he had always seen himself as the un-athlethic type, he surprised himself with the way he was able to acquire one performing skill after another.

In 2009, he passed an audition for Cirque du Soleil and, in the same year, was able to perform before a TED audience, dazzling them with his incredible skills and inspiring life story, as seen in the video below.

Why Stories Are Better Than Numbers

Tomonari’s presentation before a TED audience­­one of the most coveted speaking venues today­ ­is a perfect example of how simple storytelling far surpasses any other form of communication in terms of engaging audiences.

Why is this so?

Although some presenters, educators, and performers intuitively know that storytelling excites the imagination far more than any other type of communication, the reasons behind this have only recently become more apparent.

According to cognitive science studies, presentations full of facts and figures devoid of stories stimulate only two regions of the brain: the language processing and the language comprehension centers.

Stories, on the other hand, activate seven regions of the brain: the two mentioned previously and the five regions corresponding to the each of the five senses.

Tomonari’s story, for example, was not processed by your mind as simple words on a page, but more as a mental movie full of images, sounds, movement, colors, and shapes.

If you think about it, a movie on any subject is far more likely to keep your attention during an extended period of time than a presentation without a storyline.

Storytelling Techniques That Engage Audiences

To help recreate this same effect in your own presentations­­whether as a motivational speaker, an educator, or a presenter­­we’ve compiled a list of nine storytelling techniques that have been proven by research to immerse audiences across a wide range of mediums, from the written word to video, audio, and multimedia.

1. Vivid Sensory Descriptions

Although most don’t have the budget to create a multimillion­dollar production, any presenter can make use of the right words to recreate scenes, settings, characters, and events.

This TED presentation given by the best­selling author Susan Cain, for example, starts with a vivid story of her first summer camp experience. The reason we’re so easily drawn in by this opening is that Cain deftly chooses her words to paint mental pictures in the minds of her audience members. Phrases such as “animal warmth” to describe the physical closeness of her family sitting in the living room and “cozily reading” books in a cabin all evoke mental movies that entertain the mind far more than an opening that dives straight into the subject matter.

2. Tell a First­-Person Story

Another proven way to engage your audience is by telling a personal story of adversity and triumph. Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor, for example, tells a riveting tale of how a stroke caused her brain functions to break down one after another: First went her memory, then her motion, then her speech, and, finally, her self­ awareness.

After eight years of miraculously recovering her ability to talk, walk, and process information, Bolte is now able to share her exceptional story with the rest of the world.

Whether a narrative of triumph over a giant, a rags-­to-­riches tale, or a voyage to an unknown place, stories of personal growth and transformation have a universal quality that resonates with audiences across generations, genders, and cultures.

3. Provide an Experience

More than a simple story, you want to take the audience on a roller­coaster ride of emotions­­ with just the right balance of tension and release.

Tomonari’s talk, for example, provides the audience with an intimate glimpse of his emotions and inner life as an insecure adolescent and then later as a budding performer. The most empathetic listeners will vicariously feel his alternating emotions of defeat and self­realization as he speaks.

The key is to go beyond a mere recitation of facts and information to providing your audience with an actual experience that will stick in their minds and hearts for years to come.

The TED talk above, for example, is an example of storytelling at its best. Opening with a very vivid scene of a deadly encounter between a mini­mart immigrant worker and a tattooed man just a few days after 9/11, the presentation weaves an intricate and surprising tale full of unexpected turns, revealing how two lives were so significantly altered by the events of that fateful day.

4. Paint Scenes and Characters that Come to Life

Just like a good book absorbs your attention and transports you to the middle of a scene, so does a good presentation bring to life a story world that is either imaginary or based on real events.

Experienced presenters do this by using dialogue instead of reporting speech via narration. The above presentation, for example, takes this to the farthest extent by featuring an actor who actually inhabits the different characters of the story. By using the colloquial expressions and speaking style of each character, the presenter enables the audience to have a clear image of each personality and their life experiences.

Although most presenters might not have the acting skills necessary to give this type of performance, simple dialogue can still be incorporated into any speech or presentation. The key takeaway here is to show instead of tell.

5. Tell a Story with Conflict

An essential ingredient of any story is a plot with a conflict. The main reason listeners become involved in a story is because they are continually asking themselves, “What will happen next?”

This type of suspense and expectation only occurs when there are two opposing forces at work, such as a character facing a disease or a character who must overcome dire circumstances.

There are many different plot structures, but one of the most common is the “mountain structure.” Here, tension gradually builds up to a climax which then gives way to a resolution, such as in the presentation above.

In this talk, actress and model Aimee Mullins tells the story of how being born without shinbones didn’t stop her from becoming a ground-­breaking runner, model, and actress.

6. Create Relatable Characters

Characters are the life, heart, and soul of any good story­­without them, they would just be words on a page with no meaning.

Because characters are human­­like you and me­­they are the main reason people are enthralled by stories.

Whether consciously or not, listeners and viewers become emotionally invested in a character and internally begin to root for him or her in their path to freedom and success.

Take, for example, Tomonari’s story. Even without knowing him personally, we immediately begin to empathize with his struggles and desire a positive outcome for his quest to become a hero.

The lesson here is to create characters that can be easily identified with so that your audience begins to desire the best for them.

The above presentation by Elizabeth Gilbert, for instance, does just this by portraying a vulnerable writer who is frightened by success­­rather than an internationally renowned, best- selling author who always knows where to find her next big story.

What story can you tell that will captivate your students, employees, or listeners? We would love to hear your comments, questions, and experiences below.