5 Tips for Better Storytelling

Drew Davis

Drew Davis

Many of these tips are useful for all kinds of public speaking, but I use these in the specific context of storytelling. Enjoy!

Do not waste your opening line.

This is true of stand up comics and wedding speeches and corporate presentations.  The first words that you say have an outsized impact on your audience. They are, in their nature, more memorable than many of the other words that you will speak.   Take advantage of the opportunity. Take a risk to say something that commands attention.

In his incomparable speech, Martin Luther King Jr. opened with the following: “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

Tell me that doesn’t put some ice water into your veins and down your spine.  He is establishing togetherness, greatness, and gravity all in one sentence.  

We often fill up the beginning of stories or speeches with pleasantries, much like we do with conversation.  Hey, how are you? Good, you? Good. Cool. In the context of conversation, you need this pretense to engage in a dialogue.  You can’t just run up to someone and yell, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING TONIGHT?” Awkward, right?

But with a story, or a speech, you’ve established yourself as the speaker.  The eyes are on you. So, no pre-tense needed. Just speak.

Don’t pull teeth.

Do not pull teeth is an expression of my own making.  It is an easy behavior to identify once you know what it is.

Pulling teeth happens when a speaker or storyteller makes a point without conviction, leaving the audience unsure of why he said it, and what value it brings to the story.  Rather than simply acknowledge the gap, the speaker will then cram three or four more phrases to reassert his claim.

The impetus to do this is noble–you want to make sure that the audience is on the journey with you.  But here’s the problem. You’re runing the flow and the rhythm of your entire story just to make one point.  Even if it is the most important point, losing the rhythm of your story is still a big deal. And, if its the biggest, most important point in your story, you shouldn’t have to explain it to people a whole bunch of times. 

If you feel the audience disconnect, or you fear that they reacted differently than you expected, that’s OK.  Don’t confuse your desire for control with whether or not you are doing an impactful job.

The magic number is 6.

This is a trick I learned from a magician.  Pun obviously intended. 

The magic number is six…minutes.  You are responsible for providing a surprise for your audience every six minutes, or their attention span will wither away into the atmosphere of social media and the shit they have to do after you are done talking. 

This number was probably ten minutes twenty years ago, and will be five minutes by 2025.  The cadence and the intensity with which we absorb information is getting faster and faster and faster.  

When you practice your stories and speeches, denote where there is a major change of topic, or perspective, or action that you think will sufficiently engage the audience.  When you practice (which is not a pro tip because I’m quite certain you all could have guessed that one) time how long it takes to get between these actions. If it runs too long, that means you need to cut some of your story. 

Be detail-oriented, not obsessed.

“It was raining.  The sky was black.  Standing on my porch, I watched as the rain pelted the lake, making thousands of little ripples all colliding with one another.”

Raise your hand if you have a picture in your mind based on what I just said.

Here’s the cool part–I do, too! 

But, I bet they’re not the same.

Let me describe the scene again:

“It was raining.  The sky was black.  I was in my friend’s cabin in Black Lake, Wisconsin, two wood-shingled buildings at the top of a small hill. I was standing on the porch, leaning on the slick, wet wood that sent a faint aroma into the air as the drop pelted it.  A stone walkway wove down from the cabin through a grassy patch of lawn toward a dock. The dock jutted out into the lake about 20 feet, flanked by a boat on either side. I looked beyond the boats and saw the rain drops pelting the lake, making thousands of little ripples all colliding with one another.”

So now, you might be able to clearly be able to see the image that I was seeing in my head.  But here’s the problem: none of those details advanced the action. And it took a long ass time.  

You need enough detail for the audience to be able to form a picture, but you do not need them to get the EXACT picture that you have in your mind.  When we obsess over details, it often means that we’re disconnecting from the action of the story–its a sign of perfectionism, which is not your friend.

Humor is never objective.

When it comes to jokes in stories, you have two choices.

You can practice them, with other people, many times.  Like 10, at least. And then, based on the feedback you get, change the joke for maximum impact, put it in your story, and tell it the same way. 


You can tell your joke without sufficient practice, in which case you must be willing to stand in the awkward space you may create if your joke falls flat.

Technically, you need to be prepared to sit in the silence in either case but it is way more likely with the second case.

This is true EVEN if you’re telling a joke exactly as it has been told elsewhere by someone else.  You may have a line from a stand up comedian that you love that you want to borrow. Here’s the problem.  That crowd was warmed up by an opener. That crowd was explictly told to find everything funny because they were taping a special, and they paid a good amount of money to laugh and have a good time, so they’re inclined to do so.

That is not the case with your board meeting, or even your wedding speech.  Different context. Different environment. Different delivery.

This doesn’t meant that you can’t be funny, or that jokes aren’t allowed.  It DOES mean that you should not rely on them, though.

If you want more details or ideas about how you can CRUSH your next public speaking opportunity, check out my series here.

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