Two Common Storytelling Mistakes (And How To Fix Them)

During our public speaking classes, we always emphasize the importance of narrative.

Stories, anecdotes, case studies, and analogies are stickier than abstract concepts, particularly for audiences that lack a depth of knowledge in your topic. They serve as easy memory hooks that draw audiences to your message (rather than forcing it upon them) and can even elevate a critical hormone level that helps bond you to each audience member.

Most of our trainees buy into the concept of using narrative to inform, educate, persuade, motivate, and influence their audiences—but they often make two mistakes that undercut the power of the device.


Mistake Number One: The Stories Don’t Go Deep Enough 

In an earlier post called “Walk The Ladder,” I wrote:

In his 1949 book Language in Thought and Action, linguist S.I. Hayakawa described what he called the “Abstraction Ladder.”

As he visualized it, the bottom rungs of the ladder contained the most concrete ideas or objects (he offered the example of a cow named Bessie), while the top rungs contained more abstract concepts (he suggested “livestock” and “farm asset” as more abstract descriptors of the cow).

Presenters frequently add an anecdote into their talks—but too often, they only drop from the top to the middle of the ladder, never quite reaching the bottom rung where the rich detail and emotion lives. In order to succeed with narrative, step all the way down the ladder.

Which details should you select? There are many to choose from—but you might look for details that symbolize a larger truth, led you to an “a-ha!” moment, or forced you to reconsider a previously held viewpoint.

As an example of a presenter who got this right, watch this TED Talk from Mark Bezos. Although some formats may not be conducive to a three-minute story, a shorter story that includes many of the same elements can work beautifully.

Mistake Number Two: The Stories Fail To Frame The Larger Meaning

As Mark Bezos’ talk demonstrated so beautifully, great stories must answer the question, “So what?” His story led directly to the point he wanted to make—”If you have something to give, give it now.”—and his rich detail energized what could have otherwise been a generic and unmemorable platitude.

To avoid the problem of a great story that doesn’t lead anywhere, add a wrap-up phrase at the end of it that leads to a concluding thought, such as:

“That’s important because…”
“What does that tell us?”
“That example taught me that….”

You might not actually use those phrases during your talks (you can)—but they will serve as a useful reminder during your practice sessions to close your story’s arc by reinforcing the larger message contained within it.

Note: In some cases, such closing statements may prove unnecessary—some stories can stand on their own—but since so many benefit from a summary line or two, test it both ways before making a decision.