Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

How to Tell Your Story without Boring Your Audience to Tears

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Have you ever listened to someone tell a story — over coffee, at church, or at a conference — and been absolutely bored to tears? Or worse: the story was interesting, but there doesn’t seem to be a point?

Join the club.

Woman telling a story

Photo credit: Julien Harneis (Creative Commons)

Maybe the meat of the story you heard was interesting, but for some reason you just couldn’t stay engaged. Or perhaps you heard an anecdote that completely blew you away, but when you tried to retell it, it didn’t have nearly the same impact. Why was that?

Chances are — whether you realized it or not — the person was using dynamic storytelling elements.

We are all have stories to tell. And even if a person isn’t a professional author or speaker, we still need to learn to tell our stories well.

Because in hearing other people’s stories (and telling our own), we often find understanding and acceptance. Stories help us feel not quite so alone in this world.

So if you need some help, here are three simple steps to how to tell a more compelling story:

1. Use a hook

A “hook” is your opener. It’s the attention-getter, the question or quote that immediately hooks your listener or reader. The more off-the-wall or mysterious, the better.

Dare your audience to get lost in the story.

2. Tell the story

A story has natural momentum to it. If you simply state what happened in chronological order (many people actually neglect doing this), you will captivate your audience.

Ira Glass calls this the “anecdote” — a story in its purest form —† and likens it to a train on which you’ve invited others to join. Those riding along can feel that you’re headed towards a destination.

Glass also says you need “bait” to keep your audience engaged. As he defines it,  bait is a series of implicit or explicit questions you, the storyteller, raise.

Just remember: any question you raise, you’ll need to answer. Otherwise, you’ll leave the listener in perpetual suspense.

3. Reflect

Many people seem to tell stories just to tell them. But when you start asking why people share (and listen to) stories, often there is an objective. A reason. It may be to encourage or inspire or cause you to think differently. But still there is purpose to the telling.

At the end of your story, take a moment to reflect on what you shared. Answer any questions you’ve raised:

  • Why is this relevant?
  • What’s the moral or point?
  • Who is this message for?

Help us, the audience, understand what we’re supposed to get from the story. It doesn’t have to be cliche or cheesy; in fact, your reflection can even be subtle. Just make it count.

In the reflection, you must resolve any questions or conflicts that were raised. This is, essentially, your conclusion. Your resolution.

This can be a great opportunity to revisit your hook. Wrap up with a mention of your attention-getter or a restatement of a quote, interesting fact, etc.

This is your chance to make sense of anything that seemed superfluous at the time. Bring it all home.

Your story is waiting…

I’ve helped lots of people tell their stories. And more often than not when a story is suffering, it’s due to neglecting one of these practices.

The teller jumps straight to the reflection or doesn’t take the time to grab the audience with a hook. Or he drones on and on anecdotally without explaining why he’s telling you the story in the first place.

The result is confusion and even frustration.

Your stories deserve better. So does your audience.

How do you make your storytelling more compelling and dynamic? Share in the comments.

Want to tell better stories? Check out the books Save the Cat and STORY. They will help you hone this craft of storytelling.

*Disclosure: The above book links are affiliate links, which means Amazon pays me a commission on anything you buy through that link (at no extra cost to you). It’s just a nice way to pay for diapers.

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About Jeff Goins

I help people tell better stories and make a difference in the world. My family and I live outside of Nashville, TN. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. Check out my new book, The In-Between. To get exclusive updates and free stuff, join my newsletter.

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  • http://thisismethinking.com/ Darrell Vesterfelt

    Great post. One of my life goals is to become an incredible story teller.  One of my mentors told me about a maters degree program in story telling.  It sounds pretty great to me.  

    There is something about knowing what story to tell to what audience and in what circumstance that makes a story more powerful as well.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks. Google “Ira Glass Storytelling” – that’s the equivalent of a Master’s in storytelling. Check out the video series he does. It’s gold.

      • http://twitter.com/mitchellroth Mitchell Roth

        I have listened to that video series, his instruction had me hooked! Here’s some advice on improving:

        Take a look around in your life, and recognize who are the great story tellers. And next time they practice their craft, instead of indulging in the story, try to analyze it, using the steps above as a template. When they’re done, maybe you could even ask them how they do it or where they think they learned it from.

        After studying them, then imitate. Study and imitate, over and over. That’s something that I took away from Ira’s series.

        • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

          Great advice.

      • http://marleeward.com/ Marlee

        I LOVE that video.  Here’s the link: http://vimeo.com/24715531 
        It’s a must see! 

  • http://thewholedangthing.wordpress.com Ben Emerson

    I always feel bad for people who tell a testimony at church that get muddled and convoluted. The beautiful thing that happened to them gets completely lost amidst details that totally don’t need to be there. I love working with my students to try and help them tell better stories so that people will actually see the point and feel like the same thing can happen to them.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      yeah, that’s the worst. sad, too, because they’re usually interesting stories.

      • http://thewholedangthing.wordpress.com Ben Emerson

        Totally! I have a theory that most people (if not everyone) are sitting on a
        gold mine of great, powerful, inspiring stories. They just don’t know it.
        And since they don’t know it, they don’t tell the stories or learn how to
        tell the stories.

        • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

          agreed

  • http://about.me/jonfulk Jon Fulk

    I was really hoping to find an mp3 of you telling a story at the end of this post :)  I have to admit that I get lost in the details of my stories at times.  In almost everything, it seems to make sense to constantly keep the objective in focus.  Great post!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Great idea!

  • Anonymous

    I try adding humor to any story. Sometimes it helps to break and lighten the mood, then get back into the story. 

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      that’s a great element! i’m adding that to a list of tips for storytelling in the future. this is the basic how-to, but there are add-ons you can use to improve your craft.

  • http://davidsantistevan.com David Santistevan

    Sometimes I feel I’m not the best storyteller because my stories are rather simple and ordinary. But when I step out and say it, I’m surprised by the reaction. Being “who you are” , using the points you mentioned is enough. It also doesn’t hurt to read Don Miller’s “A Million Miles in A Thousand Years.”

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Agreed

  • Mrsawiggins05

    I’ve found that various voices and gestures and facial expressions keep an audience of all ages highly entertained.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Agreed!

  • http://somewiseguy.com ThatGuyKC

    This is great! Sometimes I feel like I struggle with telling a story and then it gets a great reception. Other times I feel like I knocked it out of the park and then it ends up falling flat.

    Going to try and remember these storytelling tips going forward.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks, KC! Hope it helps.

  • stephanie pridgen

    Good tips and important to remember. Stories have so much power when told effectively They help bring us together -your story connects to my story – it’s like a tapestry being created, and it moves me to share in your joys, struggles, fears, etc because we are connected.

    • http://about.me/jeffgoins Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Pridge. I agree.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Pridge. You’re absolutely right. I love how you tell stories, btw.

  • Jmunchbach

    Hi Jeff,

    It’s Friday morning in Houston, Texas. I’m about to break away for a couple days of camping/hunting with a couple youngsters in my community. I gave up hunting years ago, never enjoyed killing a deer. These boys are very excited and I’m glad to get away with them and listen to the birds and whatnot. Hope they get a deer and I hope they don’t.

    I’m writing to tell you thank you, my friend.

    Your work is a healing ministry to me. I suspect you know that your writing and your “marketing” is really ministry.

    One day we will meet. Here or there. This life or that life.

    We share so much in common being humans broken.

    I am thankful for you and your work.

    Until we meet.

    Love in Christ
    Jim

  • Justinmurray17

    Loved your article. Succinct and helpful!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Justin!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      thanks!

  • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

    I love to tell stories. Reminders like this are always good.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I love ‘em, too. I wish we could all tell better ones, myself included.

  • http://twitter.com/sarahfarish Sarah Farish

    Thanks, Jeff!  This month I am featuring 30 stories on my blog for 30 Days of Story. I have been amazed how well these ladies tell their stories.  I am reposting this in our 30 stories FB group, too.  I find that stories are more compelling and dynamic when (in addition to your tips) it’s paragraphed intentionally.  A few short, “tweetable” sentences pulled out and highlighted always seem to impact.  

    I love story.  As I have read comments and emails about each of the stories so far, I am in awe of God’s hand. The stories have impacted me just as much as my readers.  

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      awesome, Sarah!

  • http://www.patwashington.blogspot.com Pat Washington

    Oh, this is such a good post. 

    “The teller jumps straight to the reflection or don’t take the time to
    grab their audience with a hook. Or they drone on and one with an
    anecdote without explaining why they’re telling you the story in the first place.”  As I kept asking my daughter recently when she was telling a story for homework  (and I was typing it as she spoke, as she had been sick and in the ER that day) — “what’s your point?”

    I call what we did “organic writing,” and I wrote about it here:
    http://patwashington.blogspot.com/2012/11/organic-writing-just-dive-into-that.html

  • http://rachelledawson.com/ Rachelle Dawson

    I struggle with the hook. I can recognize a good one when I see one, but I have trouble analyzing my own start. Do you know of any good resources that specifically address that aspect?

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Watch the Ira Glass videos I linked to. And never underestimate the importance of practice and watching other people tell stories.

  • http://JaredLatigo.com/ Jared Latigo

    Very practical steps Jeff, thanks for that! I’m just starting to understand the power of the story even though I’ve seen it for years, particularly in the Bible and Jesus’ teachings. Your articles are always something I come back to later when I need a refresher on things like this!

  • Tom Bentley

    Good stuff Jeff. It’s notable too, just to see how many ways there are for writers to hook readers. Some stories begin with a mystery, some with a rush of words, some with a sense of place, some with an unforgettable character, some just with a mood. Writers can choose hues from a broad palette, and get colorful results from many combinations.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      great point, Tom.

  • Cindy Ash

    Just what I needed today — I had started a story for NaNoWriMo without knowing quite how it was going to open. Now I have an opening scene sketched out that brings the entire rest of the outline into focus. Thanks!!!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      awesome!

  • http://thirtytwoyellowwalls.blogspot.com/ Mary Timmers

    Thanks, Jeff, for the great tips.  Need to always have them in front of my brain when I write.  Writing is painting a picture that’s a story that everyone can appreciate and recognize.  No modern or abstract art here.  I love your blog and all the info in it.  I’m new here, but thanks for being here for all of us.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks for stopping by, Mary!

  • http://DavidHelmsBlog.com/ David Helms

    Great advice. As writers we have to throw ourselves into the stories. Feel the pain fresh. This is the hard part. Opening old wounds to help other heal. This also takes away the power of those wounds.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      well said, sir.

  • Danny

    Hi my name is Danny
    I recently wrote a gay fairy tale, decided to finally post it online to share with everyone, it’s not directed just toward gay people, but the main character is gay. Feel free to read it, share it online etc.. At the bottom of the page there is a rating scale were you can rate the story from 1 to 5, or leave any comments. I would appreciate any good or negative feedback. Here is the link to the page and a 2nd link to another page which is a poem I also wrote about time. Just copy and paste the url’s
    http://princelogan.wordpress.com/thesleepingprince/
    Overpowertime.wordpress.com

  • http://sparkvoice.wordpress.com/ DS

    When it comes to speaking – your energy and passion must shine through.  If you’re not excited and passionate about your own presentation, I’m not going to be as an audience member.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Totally agree.

  • Stephanie Hilliard

    Great post, Jeff, thanks. I just got put in charge of a small group charged with studying dysfunctional teams and then giving a presentation to our entire staff development organization. We were brainstorming yesterday about how we plan to do this presentation, with the goal of making it interesting, interactive, and relevant. Your post will help me guide this “story telling” effort.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Awesome, Stephanie. Glad I could help.

  • http://twitter.com/PatWooldridge Patricia Wooldridge

    Save the Cat is excellent. Along with it, I have The Essentials Of Screenwriting by Richard Walter and have learned so much from each. I believe my writing has become more effective. Now, if readers also believe that, we’re all set! :))  I’ve looked at the reviews for Story and plan to get it in a little while.

  • Yship

    Great tips.  Im trying to write some stories at the present time and this article helped a great deal.

  • Dillon806

    I enjoyed your blog post about storytelling elements because it shares information in such a simple and effective way. I have studied storytelling techniques as well and I describe it in three parts: a beginning introducing a person with obstacles to overcome or a goal, a middle presenting the individual overcoming the obstacle or achieving the goal and lastly an end with the moral of the story. You described captivating your audience as “bait” and using an opening to “hook” your audience. These word choices are simplified yet tell the reader in one word exactly how to tell a story and keep the audience interested.

  • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

    Jeff, this was concise and really helpful. One element that I’ve made an essential element in my storytelling has been to eventually get things into the present tense. If I’m telling my own story, that means being vulnerable about what’s going on right now. If it’s fictional, then I have to get the past to intersect with the now. 

    • theTeamEmpire

      That is a great add-on to this article. I also like to ask question that I call “imaginative leaps” where I ask a question where the audience see itself in the story.

  • http://twitter.com/inspirethebiz inspiretheenterprise

    I like sharing my stories or I would say thoughts of inspiration through inspirational picture quotes because I feel people connect better with them. I like motivating people and so I share my own personal experiences through the picture quotes and write my feelings about it. It tends to work well on my blog. Here is an example here:
    http://www.inspiretheentrepreneur.com/2012/07/31/bestbusiness-motivational-quote-the-entrepreneur/

  • http://www.wwjw.com/ Shopping Directory

    When it comes to speaking – your energy and passion must shine through.  If you’re not excited and passionate about your own presentation, I’m not going to be as an audience member.

  • theTeamEmpire

    Hey That was an awesome article. I really enjoyed it. Storytelling is the most powerful way to communicate and engage our audience. Thank you.

  • Jill

    This clears up why I had trouble getting my readers to engage with my blog posts. I was only giving them step 2. I quit writing that blog because I became discouraged. I’m preparing to launch a new blog and I will make sure I do all 3 steps. Thank you Jeff.

  • EvaPScott

    Story telling is also a method in listening skills. People do have a point to telling what seems like random stories linked together by a common thread. The thesis is that if you listen to what people say in a conversation, they will subconsciously tell you stories that all have one theme.

    In this case you have to decipher what the theme is. Then you will learn something about the person that they themselves may not even know.

    The closer the story they tell is to the present, the deeper they are feeling the emotion attached to it.

    It’s very interesting to listen to people looking for their story themes.

    Of course, when you are telling one professionally or in your writing, you want the audience to know what the theme is without having to dig for it.

    • John Reda

      Eva…that is very insightful. It will change the way I listen.
      John R

      • EvaPScott

        If you would like more info. on that, the book “Listening & Caring Skills” by John Savage gives more info. I learned about it in a workshop that covers the things in his book.

        I didn’t discover until later that there was more depth to all of the skills we practiced in that one-day workshop.

        Stories are so interesting. Jeff’s new book, “The In-Between” is all told through stories. It takes a lot of bravery to tell personal stories in-depth like he did – especially in public.

  • sasha ramr

    thank you so much for this

  • H00k-o-Vision

    This was awesome I hope to improve my writing with these tips

  • Angela

    I came to this page after searching a popular search engine for ‘how to tell people their stories are boring.’ I’m still not sure how to do it! Usually I pull out my phone and start playing with it in the hopes that they’ll take the hint. But they never do! They just keep going on and on with their pointless bloody story. Often they’ll just rattle off lists of things… “Here’s what I bought each of my family members this Christmas.” Or the other day “Here’s what each of the guests to my 80s themed 21st birthday party wore.” My God how do I make it stop???

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