Speaking Tips: Tell A Story

tl;dr When doing a presentation, there should always be some kind of “story” to the presentation. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown Shakespearean “Things get worse, things get a little better, then things get way worse, and either they eventually get better (a comedy) or they just end worse (a tragedy)” plot arc, but your audience needs to have a narrative arc to the talk that they can sort of hang on to while you’re doing your thing. And, as it turns out, you need it as much as they do.

Too often, when an apprentice speaker shows me their outline, it’s a wonderfully crafted entity of logic, detailing a lovely introduction to the thing, three core aspects of teh thing, and a conclusion that describes the thing and wraps up the talk. It’s a carefully-crafted Aristotelian arc, following the ancient Churchillian formula of “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell it to ‘em, then tell ‘em what you just told ‘em.”

It’s also boring as shit.

The key element that many novice presenters forget is that sitting in chairs for an hour-plus is an actual battle of willpower. The body wants to remain in motion—it hates being constrained to one place for any length of time. It’s why humans fidget in their chairs, take out their laptops, check their phones, and all the other little (distracting) things that people do during talks.

Here’s the ugly little secret that nobody wants to tell you: they’re bored. And when people are bored, their bodies start to create physical stimulation so as to alleviate some of the boredom. Sometimes they’ll be polite about it and keep it to a minimum, but not always. Now, I’ll grant you, not all motion is an indicator of boredom—some people like taking notes, be it longhand on paper or in computerized (or, more recently, tabletized) fashion. But in those cases, those people will be otherwise very still—they are concentrating on what you’re saying, and they won’t be engaging in some of the other physical movement that alleviates the boredome.

And, of course, this is a gross stereotype; everybody is a little bit different. However, keep this in mind as you gaze out across the room as a whole. If lots of people are fidgeting, it’s pretty likely that you’re boring them.

How, then, do we not be boring?

Stories vs facts

Consider this:

“Mary left her house at 7:30 am. She walked to the store. She purchased a ham, some asparagus, and some cooking spices. She returned to her house at 9am. She began to clean, and at noon she went out with some friends for lunch. When she returned at 1:30, she began preparing dinner for her husband. He did not arrive until 10pm, and the two of them began to argue.”

Meh. Boring. But now, consider it this way:

“Mary woke up in the morning, determined to not let the events of the previous day ruin her plans for today, the anniversary of when she and her husband, Tom, first met. She went to the store, picking out the things for the special dinner she was going to make for the two of them that night, and when she got back, she began to clean the house so that she could surprise him with a candlelit dinner in the living room. She went out with some friends, who were all just as excited about the evening’s plans as she was, and when she got back from lunch, she began to cook.” You know, I don’t know that I even have to tell you how this one ends. You already know.

What’s the difference between the first rendition and the second? Easy: emotions. Feelings. The reader can put themselves into a story, whereas plain facts just rest on the paper. Either you’re Mary, excited about surprising somebody you care about with a special celebration, or you’re Tom, who really doesn’t understand why the hell anybody celebrates the anniversary of the day that he ran into her at a mall, I mean, come on, Mary, it was like two years before they started dating, why would anybody remember something so trival, and—

Er, right. Sorry. Got a little wrapped up in that tale myself. Because stories do that to you. And they can do that to your audience, too, if you approach your talk like a story instead of a police blotter.


Take a moment with me and click here. I swear it’s not a Rickroll; we don’t have time for that. It’s a link to what has to be the best parody of every TED talk ever given. Go watch it. It’s short, only about five minutes. Come on back when you’re done.

Back? Cool. Kinda funny, right? But did you notice something about his presentation? Two things stand out:

  1. It’s a presentation about absolutely nothing at all.
  2. It still told a story.

In this particular case, the story is “I’m a Thought Leader, and this is how I became a Thought Leader, and, by implication, you can too, and make the world a better place.”

From a talk that is about nothing at all.

People want to hear a talk that has a story to it; we are naturally story-loving creatures. This is why politicians keep “singling people out” during their stump speeches, as best exemplified by “Joe the Plumber” back during the Obama/McCain campaign. His story was supposed to be reflective of everybody, the “everyman” of American politics. It resonates with us, because we can see ourselves in the story’s protagonists. (Or, at least, in a well-written story, it would.)

The fact is, you can’t craft a winning presentation out of dry facts. It’s just going to leave the audience bored to tears, no matter how accurate your logic or how amazing the conclusion. When people are done with a session that is simply a recitation of facts, they tend to lose the whole thing in their minds and can’t remember much beyond a small set of basics.

But if you tell a story, you can decide what they will remember, and that will help them realize that your talk was persuasive and helpful, even if it was persuasive in a direction they hadn’t expected or anticipated. (I have given talks where my goal is to persuade people not to use the thing I’m talking on except in very narrow scenarios. I’m looking at you, EJB.)

What now

Go back to your outline. Throw out all the facts, and start from a story. Or an opinion. Or something else that doesn’t ring of cold fact. Giving a talk on TypeScript? Cool: tell me why I, the audience, care. I don’t really care what your story arc is (obviously this has to be something you believe in, but I the audience member don’t really care too much one way or another); here’s a few ideas:

  • “TypeScript is the best expression of a JavaScript transpiler that has yet to reach the Web. It combines the power and efficiency of a statically-type-checked language with the underlying dynamic platform of the browser to provide an elegant mix of both.”
  • “Learning TypeScript is an exercise in slowly abandoning bad habits of the dynamically-typed JavaScript underneath it, and growing stronger and healthier habits around type-checked programming.”
  • “TypeScript is a language that clearly will only appeal to developers who grew up in the world of strait- jacketed languages like C++, C# or Java. Here’s how to use TypeScript without losing the dynamic goodness that made JavaScript great.”

I don’t much care what your narrative arc is—that’s for you, the speaker, to decide. But you need to have one. It’s easier, in many ways, to stake out a strong opinion and then work to defend it, as I do in the first and the last examples above, but in some respects the story makes more sense if you can craft it as how the audience should structure their journey through the thing, as I do in the middle. (And notice that the middle idea still stakes out the opinion that dynamically-typed/untyped programming is somehow intrinsically “bad”.)

(Note that I don’t personally believe any of the above; they’re examples, nothing more.)

You need to craft a narrative arc for your talk. Some of the speakers I’ve hung out with at conferences believe that a presentation should follow a classic “Shakespearean Arc” of:

  • There is a status quo; something comes along to disturb that
  • Things get worse
  • Things get a little bit better
  • Things get much, much worse
  • Things either resolve out better (a Shakespearean comedy) or collapse entirely (a tragedy)

In other words, the thought is that your talk should take a “three act” approach.

I’m not as big a fan of that theory, personally, but if that works for you, by all means, go for it. It can work particularly well with keynotes, which tend to want to be more persuasive in style, but for a technical talk, it’s a little hard to pull off. Besides, it can get a little cheesey if you’re not careful: “In the beginning, JavaScript developers wrote code, and it was OK. But then applications got bigger, and woe! They couldn’t keep things straight anymore. Microsoft gave us TypeScript, and it made things a little better, but OH NOEZ! Along came frameworks like AngularJS, which embraced dynamism and made static typing all that much harder.” (Then, either TypeScript got better in return and they all lived happily ever after, or it didn’t, and all the JavaScript programmers killed each other, making it a true Shakespearean tragegy. Your call.)

Tips to a narrative arc

Sometimes it can be hard to find that story in your talk. I sympathize; I find it hard to do that with a fair number of the talks I give, particularly breakout sessions on core subjects. How on earth do you find a story in “Introduction to Swift”, for crying out loud?

Here’s a couple of thoughts:

  • Remember that abstract you wrote? The key elements there were “Pain” and “Promise”. Go back to that. Start from a perspective of somebody just starting with this technology, then walk them right up to the Pain. “When you do this, oh, crap, things just got worse.” This should be no more than 1/3 of your talk. Now, spend the next 2/3 walking them through to the Promise. End on a success note.
  • Tell a personal story that underlies the talk. A simple place to start is your own experience—when you first got started with the thing, what happened? What were the obstacles that got in your way? What was the “a-ha” moment for you around this thing that made you finally understand it? I will frequently tell this kind of story around my experience coming to understand Java: At first, as a pretty hard-core C++ guy, I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to give up all the language power of C++ for a stripped-down and oversimplified version in the Java language. Once I got to see how the Java language was actually just a thin shell over the power of the Java Virtual Machine, however, and I could see what the JVM afforded me at runtime, now all of a sudden I “got” Java and it made a lot more sense.
  • Tell several stories as punctuation marks. At various points in your presentation (not more than one every fifteen minutes or so, in my rough estimation), use stories from your life or your career to underscore a point you want to make. Usually it’s best if these are funny stories, to help break the tension and keep people engaged, but more than anything, the story should underscore the point the presentation is trying to make. Don’t fake it, and don’t try to force a story to fit. These stories should also “fit” into a larger arc, but sometimes if that larger arc doesn’t seem to be coming to mind, you can use these punctuation stories as a way to help people solidify your points in their own minds.

There’s a lot of room here with respect to storytelling, so don’t get too distracted by the trees. The goal here is to create a single narrative arc that supports your two-sentence summation of your talk, and use stories to help flesh that out. If the story concept doesn’t seem to be fitting, then drop it and keep your focus on the narrative arc itself: Why do I care? Why should I listen to your talk? What’s in it for me? What pain can you spare me, or what promise can you give me, that will be worth my time in exchange? If you can put that into a form that has some level of emotion in it, you will have connected much more strongly with your audience.


Read the following books:

There’s a ton more, but these will help get you started.