Storytelling techniques

8 classic storytelling techniques to create engaging presentations

Public speakers who are good at taking their audience on a journey leave them feeling motivated and inspired. But it can be difficult to structure your speech in a way that conveys your ideas and keeps your audience interested. These eight storytelling techniques will help you create a presentation that is memorable:

  1. In medias res
  2. False start
  3. Nested loops
  4. Monomyth
  5. The Mountain
  6. Ideas that converge
  7. Petal structure
  8. Sparklines

When presenting, you should start with the information you are trying to convey. That’s common sense, right? No, it’s wrong! Stories are what humans are wired for. They are drawn to heroes, adventures, layers, happy endings, and surprise.

These classic storytelling techniques can help you deliver a presentation that will capture the attention of your audience. The story is the most important part of a presentation.

1. In medias res

In medias res storytelling refers to when your story begins in the action and then moves back to the beginning to tell how it got there. Your audience will be riveted from the start by being taken to the most exciting part in your story. They’ll stay interested until the end.

Be careful not to reveal too much. You might hint at something strange or unorthodox – something that requires more explanation. Your audience should be given just enough information to keep them interested, while you set the scene and go back.

However, this works only for short presentations. If you make it too long, your audience will lose interest and become frustrated.

Useful for:

  • Attract attention right from the beginning
  • Resolve to keep your audience interested
  • Concentrating your attention on one pivotal moment in the story

Zak Ebrahim opens his talk by revealing that his father was involved in the 1993 World Trade Centre Bombing. As he recounts his childhood and the steps he took to get there, his audience is riveted from the start.

2. False start

When you start telling a predictable story but then suddenly interrupt it and begin over, it is called a ‘false beginning’ story. Your audience is tricked into believing they are secure, then shocked when you turn the tables.

This format is ideal for discussing a time when you failed at something and had to ‘go back the beginning’ and reassess. This format is great for discussing the lessons you learned from this experience. Or how innovative you solved your problem.

It’s also a great attention hack that will quickly disrupt the expectations of your audience and surprise them into paying more attention to your message.

Useful for:

  • Change the expectations of your audience
  • Flexibility: Benefits of an open approach
  • Engaging the audience

Also, retroactive continuity refers to when a storyteller alters the facts of their story. You can use a false beginning to retell your story in a new way if you are a part of the story.

J K Rowling opens her Harvard speech in a very typical way. She speaks about her university experience and her expectations from her parents. She is expected to speak about her growing writing success, but instead she focuses her attention on a period in her twenties when she felt like she had ‘failed’ in her life. The next step is inspiring.

3. Nested loops

Nested loops are a storytelling technique that allows you to layer multiple narratives within one another. Your most important story, which is the heart of your message, should be placed in the center. The stories surrounding it will elaborate on or explain this central principle. You should always start the first story, and finish the last.

Nested loops is a way for a friend to tell you about a wise person they have met, or someone who has taught them a valuable lesson. The first loops tell the story of your friend, while the second loops tell the story of the wise person. The important lesson is at the center.

Useful for:

  • Explanating how inspiration came about/ how it led to your conclusion
  • Analogies are used to explain a central concept
  • A little bit of wisdom passed on to you

Simon Sinek’s TED talk demonstrates how successful organizations put the ‘why’ at the centre of their work. The ‘why?’ of what they do is at the center, with the ‘what’ surrounding it. They are surrounded by the ‘what?’ and ‘how’. Nested loops can be a great way to frame this message and give your audience an insight into your identity.

Chimamanda Adichie draws on her university experiences and how Africa is perceived by the West to support her argument about stories.

4. Monomyth

Monomyths (also known as the hero’s quest) are story structures that can be found in folk tales, myths, and religious writings all over the globe. A monomyth has the hero being called to leave home and embark on a difficult journey. They leave a familiar place and move to a dangerous unknown location.

They return home after overcoming great trials with a reward or newfound knowledge that will benefit their community. This structure is still used in many modern stories, including Star Wars and the Lion King.

The monomyth can be used to help shape your presentation and explain the journey that led you to the wisdom that you desire to share. This can make your message more tangible for your audience.

Useful for:

  • Take the audience on a journey
  • Showing the benefits of taking chances
  • Demonstrating how your newfound wisdom was acquired

BLACK, a Japanese yoyo-er, tells the inspiring tale of how he found his passion and the hard road that led him to becoming a world champion. He ends his talk by sharing his newfound skills and bringing his entire journey to an end.

5. The mountain

Mountain structure is used to map tension and drama in stories. Because it allows us to plot certain events in a story, it’s similar to a monomyth. Because it does not necessarily end in a happy way, it’s unique. The story’s first section is about setting the scene. It is then followed by a series small challenges and rising actions that lead to the climactic finale.

Useful for:

  • Demonstrating how you have overcome a variety of obstacles
  • Slowly increasing tension
  • A satisfying conclusion

Aimee Mullins uses mountain-structure speech to tell her personal story, from being born with no fibula bones in the lower legs to becoming an actress, model, and athlete.

6. Ideas that converge

Converging ideas is a structure in which different thought strands are combined to create one idea or product. You can use it to demonstrate the birth of a movement. You can also explain how one idea came about from the collaboration of many great minds.

This technique can be used to tell stories about some of the most important partnerships in the world, such as Larry Page and Sergey Brin, web developers.

Sergey and Larry met in 1995 at Stanford’s PhD program. However, they were not immediately a match. Both had great ideas and found it hard to work together. They ended up working together on a research project. Google was born from their research project.

Useful for:

  • It’s amazing how many great minds come together
  • Demonstrating the historical context in which a particular development occurred
  • Demonstrating how symbiotic relationships can be formed

Also, Steven Johnson’s TED talk by Steven Johnson explains how collaboration is the key to some of the greatest ideas in history.

John Bohannon, Black Label Movement and other dancers explain how scientists and dancers combined to create an exciting alternative to boring presentations.

7. Petal Structure

Petal structure allows you to organize multiple speakers around a single central concept. This is useful for unrelated stories or information that you wish to share – all of which relate to one message. Your stories should be told one at a time before you return to the center. Although the petals may overlap, each story should be its own distinct narrative.

You can create a rich tapestry that supports your central theory. You can also create strong emotional impressions about your idea. Showing your audience how these stories relate to each other will leave them feeling more important and weighty.

Useful for:

  • Demonstrating the interconnectedness of different parts of a story/process
  • Showing how different scenarios can be reconnected to one idea
  • Multiple speakers can talk about the same central theme.

Although Simon Sinek’s theory may lend itself to nested loops perfectly, he chose to present his talk in a petal format. His audience is presented with a series of stories that illustrate his ideas. Each story strengthens his message.

8. Sparklines

Sparklines can be used to map presentation structures. Nancy Duarte, graphic designer, uses sparklines to analyze famous speeches graphically in Resonate.  She believes that the best speeches are those that contrast our normal world with an ideal, better world. They contrast what is with what might be.

The presenter brings attention to the problems in society, personal lives, and businesses. The presenter then inspires the audience to seek out solutions.

This is a powerful technique that will motivate your audience to help you.

Useful for:

  • Encourage the audience to take action
  • Create hope and excitement
  • Create a following

Martin Luther King’s speech, which contrasts the intolerant and racist society of the day with an ideal society where all races are treated equally, is well-known around the globe.

Start with a story

These are 8 classic storytelling techniques that will brighten your talk and engage your audience. There are many other storytelling methods that you could use. You can make your talk, no matter how dry it is, more interesting if you put the story at its heart.

Ready to tell your own story? Get in touch with us and learn how to use our tools to create your personal business story.

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Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash


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