by Steve Roche


Any story you use must appeal to you and be right for your audience. Put yourself in the place of the listener and consider their needs. To make your story come alive, include

  • Sensory language
  • Personal experiences
  • Emotion.

A young man began a presentation at work by talking about his new sports car, which he’d wanted and saved for and which was his pride and joy.

He talked with obvious relish and contagious enthusiasm, engaging and amusing his audience – who had no idea where this was going. He developed the story to the point at which he left the house one morning only to discover the car was gone: stolen. Until things go wrong, security is something we all take for granted.

What a great way to introduce a subject that could have been deadly dull! Using his own vivid experience made him totally congruent with his message and kept his listeners totally connected. You can be certain that they remembered the point he made.

The coach Michael Neill tells the following story to make a point about choosing one’s attitude.


Michelangelo was on his way to visit the Pope when he came across three stonemasons at work on the foundations of the Sistine Chapel. When he saw the first, a dour fellow chipping away at a huge slab of rock, he asked him what he was doing. ‘What does it look like I’m doing?’ the surly labourer replied. ‘I’m chipping away at a huge slab of rock.’

A bit further along, he saw another workman doing a similar job, but with a bit more focus and intent. When asked what he was doing, the workman scarcely looked up. ‘What does it look like I’m doing?’ he said. ‘I’m supporting a home for the woman and children I love.’

Before he could go any further, Michelangelo noticed that the third stonemason was working as if possessed by joy. ‘What are you doing?’ asked a curious Michelangelo.

The man stopped for a moment and his smile broadened. ‘What does it look like I’m doing?’ he replied peacefully. ‘I’m building a cathedral.’

The moral: how meaningful your life is has nothing to do with what you do, and everything to do with why and how you choose to do it.

So if you cannot find or invent anything suitable from your own experience, search established sources for allegories, parables or metaphors. The important thing is that they illustrate a relevant point.


A lecturer was beginning a talk on how to manage stress. He raised a glass of water and asked, ‘How heavy do you think this glass of water is?’ The answers ranged from 20g to 500g.

‘It does not matter about the absolute weight’, he said: ‘It depends how long you hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it is OK. If I hold it for an hour, I will have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, you will have to call an ambulance. It is the exact same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes. If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later we will not be able to carry on, as the burden becomes heavier and heavier. What you have to do is to put the glass down and rest for a while before holding it up again.’

Having grabbed everyone’s attention in this way, he went on to expound the theme: we need to put down our burden periodically, so that we can be refreshed and able to carry on.

Working with stories

Here is a way to test your story, metaphor or analogy to check that it will get the point across successfully.

First position

Sit or stand where you will be presenting, and imagine yourself telling the story. Observe the imaginary audience, and ask yourself what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling.

How can you change your behaviour to make the experience more effective?

Second position

Sit in a seat where your audience will be. Imagine you are them, watching and listening to you telling the story. Ask yourself, now what do I see, hear and feel?

How could the storyteller change their behaviour to make the experience more effective for you?

See Perceptual positions for more on how to use different perspectives.

Use stories to create rapport

Stories are a great way of establishing rapport with your audience, and it helps if you analyse what is happening.

  • Decide what outcome you want from telling the story, metaphor or analogy.
  • What specific behaviour do you want to see that will tell you that you have achieved it? This might be laughter or tears, or people looking at you intently, taking notes or going into trance.
  • Notice what response you are getting, but avoid making judgements. Rather than saying ‘Well you’re obviously bored’, ask a non-threatening question: ‘Brian, you’re frowning, is there something you’re unclear about?’
  • Be flexible. If you are not getting the response you are expecting, keep changing your behaviour until you do. You might change your voice, stance, gestures or eye contact. Maybe you will decide to cut the story short, exaggerate it or involve the audience. Avoid sudden or incongruent changes, however, as these may make people feel manipulated.

Tell stories to change emotional states

Shared experiences, of the type common to us all, work best as state changers.


This morning I was running late for an important meeting. I made good time on the main roads and arrived at the building with two minutes to spare, just as someone pulled into the last parking spot for two miles. Have you ever toured the back streets looking for a parking spot and watching the minutes ticking away? Just thinking about it makes you impatient, doesn’t it?

Think of simple examples like this to elicit the sorts of state you want: curiosity, relaxation, learning, enthusiasm or joy.

Stories with nested loops

A nested loop works like this: you start telling a story, metaphor, or anecdote, but before you have completed it you start another story. And then you tell only part of the second story before moving on to a third, and so on. This is known as opening nested loops. You only close the loops much later, finishing each of the stories in reverse order.

Using nested loops tells the audience: you don’t have it all yet. This will maintain their interest and attention so that they remain open to new things, until they think they have the final piece.

This is what you do:

  • Start telling one of your stories. When you are about three-quarters of the way through, break off, so there is no resolution, punch-line or conclusion. It often works better if there is a connection between the stories so heading off on another tack seems natural.
  • Immediately lead into another story. Again, only tell part of it before breaking off to tell a third story.
  • And you don’t finish that one either: leave all stories incomplete.

The purpose of breaking off the stories is that people don’t have a sense of completion. They know there is more to come. This creates anticipation, attention, curiosity and sense of wanting to know more – which are useful states to elicit for your presentation.

When you get to the point of returning to the stories, it is highly effective to continue as if there had been no break. Just stand in the same way, in the same location and go on with the next line as if you had never stopped. People will go straight back to the state they were in when you broke off the story.

Nested loops in everyday life

People are familiar with nested stories from their everyday conversations. We all use them occasionally. For example, when talking about what happened at work, or on holiday, you get distracted and follow another track. You get diverted again, then somebody says ‘Hang on a minute, what happened to...?’

All successful presenters and trainers tell stories. A story bypasses the conscious mind – and its message can therefore have a greater impact. Telling stories makes your presentation more entertaining, so people are more likely to remember you favourably.

Comedians often use loops. Ronnie Corbett used to sit in a big chair and tell a joke or story but go on to something else before finishing it. He’d continue to stack up maybe ten or 15 loops in a ten-minute sketch. Billy Connolly does it in his stage act – he starts a story, breaks it off and keeps coming back to it.

In literature, the classic example is The thousand and one nights, which is basically stories within stories within stories... A modern writer who does this is Garrison Keillor in his Lake Wobegon stories.

And watch how charismatic business presenters, such as Tom Peters, use this technique. Once you have the storytelling filter in place, you will discover just how universal a practice it is.

Building a repertoire

Here are some ideas to help you come up with stories. Most of us have ones we’ve recounted many times, for example:

  • The stories you tell your friends when chatting or passing the time of day
  • The stories that come out at a family get-together, once you start reminiscing about the old days
  • The stories that you use when you first meet strangers and start telling them about yourself.

Your stories could be any events in your life that stand out and have some kind of charge for you:

  • Your childhood – how you learned to do things, or misunderstood what adults were doing
  • Significant life events, such as starting school, a new job, getting married
  • Things that happened on your holidays, when travelling or in foreign places
  • Crises that involved calling in a specialist to fix things
  • Meetings with remarkable people
  • Fact, fiction or fantasy – stories you’ve heard or read.

Become a collector of stories that appeal to you, and you will soon have a repertoire to put into your presentations as and when you need.

Top tips for storytelling

  1. Paint images by using words related to the five senses: ‘The scene was one of total devastation. A distant alarm bell was ringing. Burning smoke filled my nostrils, and I felt sick to my stomach... ’
  2. Use concrete words from the physical world when speaking, even when talking about invisible things. For example, an audience would be more touched by the word ‘crying’ than the more abstract ‘mourn’ or ‘grieve’. Use words that inspire, that imitate a sound, that paint a beautiful picture...sanctuary, crescendo, seaside.
  3. Create suspense by starting with a provocative statement or question. Finish by delivering the resolution to your original question: ‘Do you know what the one thing is that all women hate? Years ago, I met a female police officer who... (story). And that’s how I learned that the one thing that all women hate is...’
  4. Have a reason for using a particular story. Make sure it is relevant to the audience and the situation, and that you know exactly why you are using it – what point it makes or what state it evokes.
  5. Create and grow your own collection of anecdotes that have a powerful impact. Adapt other people’s stories, metaphors, jokes, introductions or one-liners for your own purposes.
  6. Use your personal experience. If there’s a story you particularly like, adapt it to make it about you; it will sound more authentic. On the other hand, avoid telling too many personal stories within one presentation.
  7. Use nested loops – begin the second story before you finish the first, and so on. Make sure you close the loops at the end.
  8. Practise your storytelling skills regularly. People enjoy listening to good stories. You might even join a storytelling group. Polish up your favourites so you have them ready at any time.

There is much more in the topic on Storytelling in Business.