11 Secrets of Great Storytelling Speech

Definition of Storytelling Speech:

No, I’m not talking about dialogue here. Storytelling speech or narrative speech is the term given to public speaking with the focus of a narrative, often a personal one. In other words, a speaker uses a story as an example to capture the audience’s attention and illustrate their point.

If you’ve ever watched a TED Talk, you’ve seen presenters from all over the world doing this very thing. They share one major idea and they use a story (or stories) to drive that point home. It’s a very simple way to make a convincing argument and gain the audience’s empathy.

I’ve chosen 11 storytelling speech examples from TED and TEDx talks. Read on to find out what makes these talks so compelling.

Be vulnerable to make yourself relatable

Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability

Brown starts her speech with a technique that many stand up comics use; she starts talking about how she is perceived, “I saw you speak, and I’m going to call you a researcher, I think, but I’m afraid that if I call you a researcher, no one will come, because they think you’re boring and irrelevant.” She tells us how her mind works, “life’s messy, clean it up, organize it and put it into a bento box.”

Brown doesn’t tell us about her research, she tells us how she gathers it in her manilla envelopes, and she tells us about how her research led to a personal breakdown and therapy. By being vulnerable with her audience, she unpacks the topic of vulnerability and allows us to empathize and connect with her. “Am I the only one to struggle with vulnerability? No.”

Key takeaway: Being vulnerable can bring the audience closer to your story. But, overshare with caution. Vulnerability can scare away the audience too.

Give well-known examples to illustrate your point

Simon Sinek, How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Watch Simon Sinek, and you’ll see that although he tells stories, they are very rarely personal ones. He uses a petal structure where he weaves a rich tapestry of evidence around a central theme. He talks about Martin Luther King, he talks about the Wright Brothers, but he very rarely talks about himself, other than to explain that he “made a discovery” or “changed his view.”

So, does Sinek gain anything by not talking about himself? Well, chances are we’ve heard of Dr. King, but what Sinek points out about his influence, taps into something we may not have thought about. He uses a well-known figure to illustrate a point in an interesting way. So, does he lose anything? Absolutely not. His TED talk at the time of writing has over 43,600,000 views.

Key takeaway: Drawing from real life, particularly well-known historical figures can add weight to your story.

Answer your audience’s questions with anecdotes

Jane McGonigal, The Game that Can Give You 10 More Years of Life

When McGonigal found herself stuck in bed for three months following a bad concussion, she invented a healing game, SuperBetter (and wrote a fantastic book about it).

But that’s not the way that McGonigal starts her talk. She starts with an anecdote about how a cab driver tells her that video games are a waste of life, before going on to show how many games tackle deathbed regrets, then leading into her personal story and getting the audience to try some of her games. The effect this has is to first and foremost establish her as an authority so that the audience trust her, before introducing the game she has designed.  It’s very simple and it’s very powerful.

Key takeaway: Use narrative to earn trust by tackling your audience’s questions and concerns.

Reinforce your narrative with a visual story

James Veitch, This is what happens when you reply to spam email

Perhaps one of my favourite TED talks here; Veitch has an advantage when it comes to gaining the audience’s attention — he’s a standup comedian. But when you watch standup comedy, one thing is very apparent. Comedians talk about themselves all the time. Veitch starts his speech by sharing with us a game he used to play when he was a kid. Being dead. He goes on to share a story about replying to a spam email. One thing is very clear to us from that personal story at the beginning and it’s reinforced at the end of the speech, with a photo of Veitch as an adult in the same ‘playing dead’ pose; Veitch loves to play games.

Key takeaway: Use photos or graphics to strengthen your argument on stage. Bookending them like Veitch does here is a great way of opening and closing your narrative.

Hold something back to draw your audience in

Andrew Stanton, The Clues to a Great Story

Maybe this is an obvious one to choose (we know it’s going to use storytelling devices because it’s talking about great stories), but let’s take a look at why it’s effective. Stanton starts his talk with a joke to break the ice, before going on to tell a personal story. “What if I told you my history was story,” says Stanton, and right there he’s hooked us, he’s promised to share with us something personal about himself related to the topic at hand. While telling us how he’s learned to tell a story, he litters his speech with personal anecdotes about parenthood, about how Pixar fought back against Disney’s traditional storytelling, and about being a premature baby. And from these personal anecdotes, Stanton teaches us to draw from what we know to express personal values. It’s impactful and it’s memorable.

Key takeaway: Tell your audience what you’re going to tell them as a hook to draw them in. Use timing carefully to satisfy their curiosity.

Focus your theme with props

JJ Abrams, The Mystery Box

JJ Abrams is a master of storytelling and it’s barely 1 minute into his talk that he starts telling a story about his grandfather. Using the nested loop story structure, Abrams leads us into his topic with props, with humour (a lot of humour!), and personal anecdote upon personal anecdote. Tannen’s magic box is a wonderful metaphor for the way that Abrams tells stories and kept on stage throughout his talk, it keeps him and the audience focused on a single topic for almost 18 minutes. Even when he appears to be stretching away from the topic, everything Abrams talks about, he brings back to that either that mystery box and his grandfather.

Key takeaway: Use props as a visual metaphor to focus you and your audience on your topic.

Make your brand story personal

Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos CEO at TEDMED 2014

What do frauds, con artists, and writers have in common?

They’re both powerful storytellers.

Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos story is absolutely fascinating to me. As a character, with her deep voice, her Steve Jobs inspired wardrobe, and her seeming inability to blink, she could be something straight out of a Bond film.

One thing that Holmes does exceptionally well in her TED talk is to tell a personal story that relates to her brand story. She wanted to disrupt lab testing because she didn’t get to spend enough time with her uncle. It’s a story that resonates with everyone — we all have a person who we loved that we miss. She lulls the audience (as she did her many investors) with personal anecdotes about blood testing, but she never really says anything about science.

It’s all smoke and mirrors and as a piece of storytelling speech, it’s an exceptional example.

Key takeaway: We want to follow leaders that share a universal story or relatable reason for starting their business. Be careful not to become so convincing at telling your brand story that you swindle investors out of millions with nothing to show for it.

Master writing to master speaking

Tim Urban, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator

Urban’s speech is ALL personal story. It has comedy, it has unexpected twists and turns, and it has charming graphics to help the narrative. Best of all, Urban gives imaginative names to relatable human traits, “The Panic Monster,” “The Instant Gratification Monkey.” These are so relatable that the online audience writes in with names of their own. Browse the comments and you’ll come across “The Guilt Ghost,” “The Chaos Committee,” “Macho Me.”

Urban discusses working on that speech in his blog, Wait But Why. It’s particularly useful to read if you’re giving a speech, or if you’re teaching presentation skills. What becomes clear reading this blog is that Urban has a clear and distinct writing voice and that he’s adept at writing — and armed with these skills, it’s really no surprise that he gives an excellent storytelling speech.

Key takeaway: Storytelling speech doesn’t have to be serious. Urban’s names for relatable traits are imaginative and entertaining. In making us laugh, we listen more earnestly.

Break the ice with an amusing personal story

Shawn Achor, The Happy Secret to Better Work

Achor starts his speech with a classic TED trope, telling a story from his childhood. In fact, it takes up almost three minutes of a very funny talk that is barely over nine minutes long in total. So what value does that childhood story have? Firstly, it sets the tone about our presenter — we start listening because he’s engaging because we think Achor is funny and we expect the rest of the talk to be engaging and funny. Secondly, it sets the focus for the talk. We don’t necessarily know what the talk is about yet, but because of that unicorn story, we know it has something to do with positivity — and because we are curious, we want to know what that is.  

Key takeaway: By sharing a funny personal anecdote as a hook, Achor draws the audience in. When he delivers his key message, they’re interested and engaged

Compare what is to what could be

Susan Cain, The Power of Introverts

There is some irony in the fact that Susan Cain’s book The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking led to her current role as a public speaker. Cain’s story is inherently personal (if you’re not an introvert, chances of you talking about them are slim) and she starts her storytelling speech with an anecdote about spending time at summer camp. Cain uses sparklines to contrast the world’s current obsession with extroverts (brainstorming in groups, open plan offices) and offers us a new ideal (spending time alone, getting inside our own heads). It’s an emotional technique, that Cain uses to persuade the audience. But, as the comments point out, she goes out of her way to state and restate that extroverts have something to offer the world. Cain’s new ideal accommodates different perspectives.  

If you’re interested in how Cain overcame her fear of public speaking, look to her interview with Tim Ferris, How to Overcome Fear and Embrace Creativity.

Key takeaway: Contrast the ordinary world to a new improved world to persuade your audience to make a change.

Uncover the interesting through research

Elizabeth Gilbert, Your Elusive Creative Genius

A bigger challenge for Elizabeth Gilbert might be to give a speech without telling a story. A natural raconteur, Gilbert speaks the way she writes, and she has a lot of great things to say about creativity. This TED talk comes seven years before her book on creativity, Big Magic, and asks, do we really have to suffer to be creative?

Gilbert uses the petal structure to blend personal stories with well-researched anecdotes about the Greeks and the Romans. In fact, well-researched is the key here. Gilbert has done a deep dive into her subject and the journey it takes us on is refreshing and thought-provoking. Through research, she’s able to turn a modern assumption on its head and suggest a new alternative — a “what if?”.

Key takeaway: Once you’ve asked yourself, “what if,” spend time researching examples that substantiate your argument.

So one final thought.

Most people find giving speeches terrifying and if you’re one of those people, you probably have more in common with these 11 speakers than you think.

One of the most hidden secrets of storytelling speech is that to be good, you have to practice. Practice speaking to your dog, to your baby, to your plants, and then get on stage and start practicing in front of people.

Good luck!

Writer, marketer, and co-founder of Nicely Said by night. Women in Games Ambassador. Currently at Hyper Hippo, focusing on narrative and marketing communications. Past experience includes the BBC, Virgin, and Disney. With a Master’s Degree in Electronic Communication & Publishing, Emma brings her 20+ years of experience to the Nicely Said blog. Emma has worked on multiple award-winning games, apps, and websites. She also hates belly buttons.

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