10 Tips for Telling Kick-Ass Stories

Be authentic and don’t memorize. We all have built-in bullshit detectors and know when a speech is canned. Don’t worry about “ums” or “ahs” or if you forget something in your story. Your audience will be engaged in the narrative, and won’t care.

Make sure your story is a story and not an anecdote. It must have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Start your story in “the action” and show, don’t tell. So instead of, “It was a gray morning and I had eggs and a muffin before heading out for the hike that would change my life,” say, “I’ve got beef jerky, a canteen full of water and a nagging feeling I am in over my head as I stare at the curved, dusty path that marks the start of my journey along the Appalachian Trail.

Know the message you want to get across and weave it into the narrative, but focus on the story as its vehicle.

Tell us how the story changed you. The person telling the story must undergo some kind of transformation, have some kind of “aha” moment that changes the way they think about themselves, others or the world.

Make sure your story has conflict and stakes – something the person telling it stands to gain or lose by the outcome – and make them known at the beginning of your story. Good stories always create tension and hinge on a problem to be solved, a mountain to climb, a race against time.

Failure is your friend. It may seem paradoxical, but casting yourself as the hero of your story will turn off more people than it will inspire. If you are honest about the times you’ve failed and what you learned from those failures, you will elicit empathy, compassion and identification.

Be vulnerable. Again, it may seem counterintuitive to show your weaknesses, but they are what makes us human and a willingness to share them will do more than anything else to win over your audience.

Set the stage for the listener and include details. As much as possible, tell your stories in scenes and using your five senses. What were you seeing, smelling, hearing? What dialogue do you remember? If the girl who knocked your blocks down in kindergarten was named Nancy Lipschitz, use her name in the story. It make the story come alive.

The best stories can be told in 5-8 minutes. Practice and edit until your story is tight. Memorize your first line and your last line – but not the full story. Know the arc and draft an outline so you know where you’re heading, but if you grab people with the first line, and bring them home with the last, your story will have more impact.


2 Replies to “10 Tips for Telling Kick-Ass Stories”

  1. Hi Tracey!
    Thank you so much for your gigantically brilliant contribution to storytelling as an art form. I was “introduced” to you through Prof. John Trybus / Georgetown’s Social Impact Storytelling class. Your heart and sprit came through the screen for me during your interview. Thank you also for being a complete and total badass; for being brave and transparent with your life, your babies story and your sobriety. I logged onto your site today to see more of your content and I’m leaving with oodles of inspiration for how to tell my own story. I celebrate what you said about story telling being an, “Incredible, I have to do this feeling.” (That exact calling came over me two years ago while giving a speech at a fundraiser. It was spiritual and tangible.) In the meantime however, I got to have half of my tongue cut out of my mouth. [Pesky oral cancer.] A brilliant surgeon crafted me a new tongue though, utilizing tissue from my wrist and an artery. I’ve since learned to talk again, said the girl with a BA in Communication. Also, I came here looking for something specific regarding how long a story should be and found it. You said five to eight minutes and only memorize the first and last line. (Got it!) Finally, in terms of your story creation ‘process’ and story telling prep – do you write your stories in their entirety first? Or do you just jot points of interest down and weave the story together in the moment? And in terms of ‘practicing’… what does that look like? Do you record yourself and listen/watch and then edit? (Perhaps this information is on your site and I missed it. If so, please forgive me.) Thanks in advance for your response, if possible. You have so beautifully influenced and fueled my passion. ~Please Keep Talking! Melissa Vincent (Zionsville, IN) 317.410.1591

    1. Melissa,

      My deep apologies for just now seeing this message that you left so very long ago! Like everyone, I’ve been deeply affected by the pandemic and have stopped holding my storytelling shows and until recently haven’t started teaching and telling stories again. To answer your question, I used to write my stories out, but that tended to making me want to memorize them, which is a big probem with storytelling. If you forget something, then you’re stuck. Now, I just have an idea of where I want my story to start, the middle, the end and a couple of scenes and then I just voice record myself. And I almost always seek feedback from one of my mentors to see what I’m missing, or need to add. Hope all is well with you and your tongue (my goodness – you have quite a story right there!) and I hope you will continue your own storytelling journey. – Warmly, Tracey

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