How to Tell a Story (an Example for Leaders)

Christopher Witt —  January 14, 2013

I love stories. I love telling stories. I love listening to them.

And I believe that there’s no better way to influence or inspire an audience than to tell a story. So I’m always on the lookout for a good story, well told. Here’s one I recently came upon of Noah St. John winning an event on the Snap Judgment stage.


Here’s what he did right.

1. He pauses at the beginning.

He walks to his place on the stage deliberately and without hurry. He plants his feet. He breathes. He looks at his audience and lets them look him over. And he takes a second breath. It’s a nervy, courageous, powerful way to start a story or, for that matter, to start any speech.

2. He leaps right into his story.

He doesn’t waste words. He doesn’t say, “I’d like to tell a story…” He simply begins his story, “When my mommas fight…” (See “How to Start a Speech” for more tips.)

3. He sets the stage

In the first minute of a five minute story (0:45 to 1:45), he orients us. He introduces the three main characters of the story: his two mommas (Robin who shuts herself in the bedroom when she’s mad, and Maria who makes toast), and himself (the anxious teenager who takes it all in “like a radio antenna”). He introduces the setting, which in this case is the car, a CRV that is “big-boned practical” and that is as much a part of the family as anyone. And he introduces the central conflict of the story: the fights that Robin and Maria have.

He doesn’t explain. He shows us all these things — the characters, the setting, and the conflict — the way a good storyteller does…with just the right amount of specific details.

 4. He introduces conflict.

With only three words, “Last Tuesday night,” (1:46) he transitions from the the setting/background to the main action of the story. The “precipitating event” (Maria asks Robin and Noah to take a ride with her) isn’t momentous, but it plays on Noah’s (our our) fears. Their hearts (our hearts) are “thudding in off-beat unison.” What does she want? What is she going to tell them?

 5. He intensifies the conflict.

Noah knows — or thinks he knows — what is happening: Maria is going to announce the end, a divorce. And for over a minute (2:24 to 3:30) Noah sits in the back seat playing out in his mind exactly what is ending, what is being lost. Notice how many times he says that he imagines, or wonders, or remembers, or thinks, or fears. Again, he doesn’t explain why he hurts. He shows us in briefly detailed, but telling images. And in doing so, we feel his pain.

6. He resolves the conflict by upending our expectations.

Maria hasn’t brought them together to announce a divorce, but to celebrate, telling them “The reason we took this ride is so that we can all be there to reach 100,000 miles together as the people who matter.” The audience laughs, both in relief and in appreciation of being cleverly surprised.

 7. He shares his insight.

He comes to the realization (4:08) that “This isn’t a break-up ride. This is a stay-together ride.” (Notice the parallel structure of those two short sentences, and the juxtaposition of “break-up” with “stay-together.) And just as he spent a minute imagining the break-up, he spends another minute imagining their stay-together future. “In this moment we are one family, constructing road as we go, burning bridges behind us, adding miles like graceful aging, driving in our CRV towards moonlight.”

8. He stops talking.

He doesn’t say, “Thank you.” He trusts the story, his telling of it, and the audience, and he accepts their applause.

9. He makes his story, our story.

A good story is both personal (this story happened to Noah and his moms, not to anyone else) and universal (this story resonates with anyone whose family has gone through tough times and come out stronger).

I also like his use of a metaphor — the CRV standing in for their family, the 100,000 plus miles representing what they’ve been through. I appreciate how well written the story is. (The best way to tell a story well is to write it out and commit it to memory.) And I love how he started slow (even though he was nervous), picked up speed and energy, and ended on a high.

What do you think of his story? What do you think he did well?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

7 responses to How to Tell a Story (an Example for Leaders)

  1. Great find, Chris. Thanks for sharing and for your analysis.

    The other thing he does well is he uses nothing onstage that’s distracting. No slides. No props. No excessive movement. This encourages the audience to imagine what these moms look like, what the CRV looks like. He invites the audience to paint its own internal picture – a proven strategy for invoking the “storylistening trance”.

    • Bruce,

      Great insight. Storytelling, as you say, does allow people to create their own pictures, using their memories and imaginations.

      And like you, I like his stillness. It makes his animation at the end all the more powerful.

  2. Chris,

    This has been a very important article for me. I minister in churches, and am almost always telling a story. This is what I was looking for to help me write and speak. Thanks for taking the time to invest in others by sharing your insights.


    • Jon, I’m glad you found it helpful. Stories are, to my way of thinking, the most powerful way of both teaching a lesson, touching emotions, and evoking wisdom. I will you and your ministry all the best. Chris

  3. You miss a very important ingredient: music! and how it flows with the story :)

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. What Eulogies Can Teach Us about Speeches - Christopher Witt - May 22, 2013

    […] StoriesYou can’t give a eulogy without telling stories. You just can’t. You are, in essence, telling the story of the person’s life or, at least, telling a story of the person’ life and imbuing it with meaning. Likewise, I don’t see how you can give any kind of speech without telling a story, at least one. (See How to Tell a Story.) […]