7 Steps to Telling a Fantastic Story
Here’s how to tell a story that everyone will want to hear again and again

March 11, 2016

The human brain is wired to recite and hear great stories.

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has discovered that when you tell a story, your brain releases a burst of oxytocin, also known as the bonding hormone. At the same time, the person listening to your narrative also receives a wave of oxytocin from his own brain.

That shouldn’t come as huge surprise.

After all, inspiring tales can incite revolutions. A personal anecdote can lead to generosity or love between two strangers. And a compelling story can catapult a man from the mailroom to the corner office.

But what makes for a great story—one that will unleash a surge of oxytocin through anyone within earshot? How do you become a fantastic storyteller?

Not through dramatic pauses or punch lines alone.

Here’s the right way to tell a story from start to finish according to the people who do it for a living.

1. Devise Your Mission Statement 

Come up with your “mission statement”—the point you’re trying to portray—first. Then figure out the best way to illustrate it, says comedian Kevin Allison, host of RISK!, a storytelling podcast.

“You don’t start swinging at a golf ball before you’ve taken a good look at where the hole is,” he says.

It’s as simple as asking yourself this question before you start talking: What’s the reason you’re telling this story to this particular group of people?

The mission statement should be something that resonates with your audience, according to Allison.

Whether your listeners are your coworkers or in laws or friends, if they don’t care about the outcome, they won’t care about your story.

2. Focus Less on Dramatics, and More on Authenticity 

Don’t try to be over-the-top or too funny or too dramatic—just be real, says comedian and motivational speaker C Willi Myles.

The reason: Your audience wants to be able to put themselves in your shoes while you’re telling the story. If a guy can picture the events happening to him, he’s now invested in the story.

In fact, when a listener feels emotionally attached to a storyline, his brain activity mimics that of the person telling the story, according to research from Princeton University. Basically, what’s happening in your mind is happening in his.

It’s the same reason many authors choose not to describe the physical features of the main character in their books. If the lead role stays faceless, the reader can picture himself running down the bad guy or waking up next to the beautiful woman. The events matter to him.

3. Build Toward a Conflict

From Pixar films to high-school plays to magazine features, every good story needs a conflict, says Jonah Willihnganz, director of the Stanford Storytelling Project at Stanford University.

What counts as conflict? It can be as epic as being lost in the woods alone with a broken ankle, or as subtle as the tension between you and your neighbor.

The most impactful stories, however, have both external (like fighting a person) and internal conflict (like battling a compulsion), Willihnganz says.

4. Acknowledge the Crowd

Show plenty of emotion, says Allison. Relaying your happiness, sadness, excitement, anger, or fear makes you seem authentic and trustworthy to your listeners. They’ll want to hear your story if you seem more likeable.

Plus, it helps engage your audience.

Remember the stern look you got from your dad when he caught you with a porno mag in grade school? Flash the crowd the same menacing stare.

If your theatrics don’t work, speak to them directly to grab their attention, says Allison: “You know exactly what I’m talking about!” or “Can you imagine yourself in that position?”

5. Make It Memorable

Guys typically dramatize 20 percent of a story and explain 80 percent, says Willihnganz. Reverse that ratio: Deliver your story like an unfolding movie plot, only including brief asides about how you or the main character feels at a few key points.

If you need to incorporate data into the discussion, do so with an anecdote.

Statistics alone have a retention rate of 5 to 10 percent, according to research from Stanford. But when those stats are paired with short stories highlighting their importance, retention rates increase to 65 to 70 percent.

Say you want to convey the growth of your current company to your employees. Then start with a tale about the business’ humble beginnings. Suddenly, your audience isn’t thinking in graphs and charts, they’re consuming the information as an uplifting story that’ll not only stick with them, but energize them.

6. Cut Your Story In Half

Edit down your story as much as possible, Myles says.

Additional details take away from your mission statement. For instance, no one cares what shirt you were wearing or what time of day it was. Instead, trim the fat and just stick to a handful of interesting details that help drive home your message.

“When you’re telling your story, you have to read people,” Myles says. If they’re not smiling or laughing or nodding their heads, then you’re probably offering up too many details.

Same goes for choosing your words: Whereas adjectives are necessary to paint a picture, our brains are wired to ignore certain overused words and phrases, reports a study in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology.

Some of those phrases include “rough day,” “slippery slope,” “bumpy road,” “smooth talker,” and “wet behind the ears,” according to the research.

Scientists say the part of your brain that experiences emotions—the frontal cortex—can’t engage with trite expressions, so cut out clichés to avoid losing your audience.

7. Rescue Your Story 

The cold, hard truth: Despite all this advice, sometimes a story will just fall flat.

So how do you save face? “There’s nothing funnier than being self-deprecating,” Myles says.

Plus, this kind of humour can actually help you seem more charming, dependable, and intellectual, according to a study from Seattle University.

Try: “You know, when I started this story, it sounded way more interesting in my head,” or, “So I’m realizing now that this story could’ve been over as soon as it started.”

And if all else fails, end with the classic line, “. . . and then I found 5 dollars.” Who doesn’t love a rags-to-riches story?