5 Tips for Telling a Better Story

This past weekend we did something special in the online MBA program at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business where I teach—we had students on campus. In launching a popular online program, we’ve been looking for ways to integrate meaningful in-person moments back into the student experience.

As a side note, I would look for this as a post-pandemic trend in a variety of settings. While many have discovered efficiencies in moving certain tasks online, there’s no replacing the connection and sense of community that comes from gathering in person. But how to best use this precious in-person time?

This was certainly on my mind as an instructor. We have wonderfully produced online lecture modules so the last thing I wanted to do for our one daylong in-person meeting is stand at the front of the room and talk at them. The course is focused on business communication including effective presentation. And, in response to today’s world of work, it’s increasingly focused on virtual communication. This in-person time was an opportunity to focus on in-person communication and connection.

In the end, I decided that we should spend the day telling stories.

Stories can change the world. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio notes, “Stories are the fundamental way in which the brain organizes information in a practical, memorable manner.” We need story to make sense of the world around us. Especially today.

The science around storytelling speaks for itself. One of the most powerful things that happens when we hear a story is an alignment—or neural coupling—between a storyteller and their audience. In his research on story, neuroscientist Uri Hasson illustrates that story can serve as “a way to transport people into your experiences and make them live your memories.” This increases understanding and empathy between the two parties. It also increases the likelihood that the audience will remember you and your story.

This story magic is sometimes referred to as narrative transportation as it makes your audience an active player in experiencing your story. The caveat? This story magic only happens when the audience is actively engaged in your story.

That’s why I decided to make storytelling the focus of our in-person time together. And I used just a bit of that time to focus on what makes an effective, engaging story capable of narrative transportation. Whether it’s a five-minute update or a 45-minute presentation, here are five tips for telling a better story in work and life.

1. Open Strong

When I need to tell a story or give an impromptu presentation, I try to plan out two key moments. First, know your opening. From a tactical standpoint, this helps you get started. From the audience’s perspective, this moment is critical. German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus first documented what became known as the serial-position effect. This concept highlight’s a person’s tendency to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst.

In addition to giving you a foothold into your talk, having a good opening helps you stand out and connect with your audience right away. More on that second critical moment in a bit. But first, after your opening, you have to know …

2. What Changes During Your Story?

When students are on campus at the University of Iowa, I can share one of my favorite fun facts: we’re just a stone’s throw from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. While an instructor in the program, Kurt Vonnegut often captivated students with his “chalk talk” on what makes a good story.

In addition to the Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end, Vonnegut taught that most stories included a journey between good and ill fortune. Cinderella’s day starts off pretty bad but then she goes to the ball, dances with the prince, and almost loses everything she’s gained before a glass slipper saves the day. Breaking Bad starts with a cancer diagnosis for Walter White and only gets worse as he continues to break bad. Put another way: Can you think of a good story where nothing bad ever happens?

It sounds cliche to say make sure something happens in your story but I think we’ve all listened to stories that seemingly served no purpose. Remember Vonnegut’s arc between good and bad circumstances. What happens? What changes along the way? This is critical in capturing and keeping your audience’s attention.

3. Dig into the Details

“Narrative transportation” sounds cool, doesn’t it? If you want to make sure this happens to your audience during your stories, you have to put some work into it. Specifically, make them feel like they’re right there with you.

Take a moment and consider your five senses. Are there sights, sounds, smells—even tastes and touches—that you can use to make this event more real? Are there similes, metaphors, and analogies that can help your audience know what something felt like?

4. Leave ‘Em Wanting More

This old show business adage is especially applicable in our modern world of work, where everyone is weighed down by the curse of knowledge. We constantly feel the need to credential ourselves by peppering our emails and presentations with formal padding and superfluous information designed to bolster our ego and quash imposter syndrome. More isn’t always better. Sometimes more is just more.

This is certainly true in stories across a variety of settings. While you should flesh out your story with detail, keep your ending in sight, and don’t stay too long at the party. Think about it: can you remember a time when you wished someone would have kept going for another 10 minutes? Didn’t think so. Have an ending in mind and …

5. Stick the Landing

You didn’t forget about that second moment, did you? As the serial-position effect reminds us, in the eyes of our audience, the beginning and end of our stories have outsized importance. Just as you should have a plan for your opening (a memorable turn of the phrase or an attention-getting idea), you should also know where your story is going and what you’ll do once you’re there.

It can be as simple as restating what’s changed (thanks, Kurt) or reinforcing a lesson. If it’s a humorous story, make sure you know your punchline and, above all, stick the landing.

The Moth is a global nonprofit dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. In their new aptly titled book How to Tell a Story, they highlight the importance of story in our lives: “Stories are the currency of a community. They tear down walls, unite cultures, and help people realize they are more alike than different, all while celebrating what is unique to you.”

Tearing down walls, uniting culture, and helping people realize they’re more alike than different. While that may seem like a tall order, there’s no better tool for working on this—and connecting with others—than story. That’s why knowing how to tell a better story is worth your time.