Tell a Story Like a Pro

A compelling narrative can be a great way to engage your audience—the key is knowing how to craft one

by Laura Sinberg • Features Editor
woman speaking
Photograph: Aaron Amat/

Script just enough.
Don’t wing the whole story. But do plan ahead. “Know your first line, your last line, the beats or road signs of where you’re going to go,” says Kate Tellers, senior producer with the Moth’s Corporate Training Program. “Then have faith that you know the material and you’re going to get there.”

Have an element of surprise.
In the first minute of your story, people will decide if you’re worth paying attention to, says Linda Rottenberg, CEO of Endeavor, which provides mentors and investors to entrepreneurs. Start with a story that draws people in, but one people aren’t expecting. While giving a speech to a group of successful businessmen in Mexico, for example, Rottenberg was asked why, in general, entrepreneurs weren’t thriving in the country. “I told them a story that involved an aquarium in which the big fish learn to feed the little fish, instead of eat them,” she said. “These men weren’t expecting me to call them out, but it worked.”

Match your movements to your story.
The cessation of body language is very important. Rottenberg tries to stop walking the stage during vulnerable moments in her stories, for example when she is talking about her husband’s cancer. She also does this when she wants to emphasize something. “It’s a signal to your audience that they have to focus,” she says.

Humanize the room.
When Jennifer Raab, president of Hunter College, gives speeches at the school’s public policy institute, the Roosevelt House, she tries to mention historical morsels about the location to draw people in. “I try to find little bits of history that matter in the room. If I am speaking to a group of political scientists, I’ll say, ‘Those stairs you just walked in on, that’s where Sara Roosevelt stood and waited for Franklin to come home from the Biltmore Hotel on November 8, 1932—the day he was elected president—and she said to him, This is the happiest day of my life,’” Raab says. “ I just gave you a visual filled with personal history. You were just there.”

Don’t tell a bad story.
“People worry that the story is boring and lots of them are—don’t tell a story just to be telling one,” says Paul Smith, author of Lead with a Story. “If you don’t have a great story to share at that particular moment, don’t do it.”

Next: Tricks to Command a Room When You're Not a Natural Born Leader

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