How to tell a great story: 3 things I learned while my plane crashed

Photo Credit: Umang Dutt via Compfight cc

Would you like to be able to tell a killer story — one that grabs your listeners and makes your point with emotion and impact?  Sometimes the best way to learn how is to study a master storyteller in action.

Here’s a TED talk from Ric Elias, CEO of Red Ventures and a passenger on Flight 1549, the plane that crash-landed in New York’s Hudson River in January 2009.  His story is brimming with emotion and impact, and it’s less than five minutes long.

I’m going to break down what he’s doing, beat by beat, so if you open the video in one browser window and keep this post in another (pretty fancy, I know), you’ll be able to follow along.

• Opening: “Imagine a big explosion as you climb to 3,000 feet.  Imagine a plane full of smoke.”  What a grabber of a beginning!  Elias wastes no time, but immediately puts us in that plane.  Notice that he doesn’t say “My plane was climbing to 3,000 feet, when suddenly I heard an explosion.”  Instead of an “I” story, he makes it a “you” story from the get-go.

• Sensory details: As part of his opening (and later, as well), Elias brings in two of the senses — smoke filling the plane and the strange sound the engines make.  Using telling sensory details (but not too many of them) helps bring a story to life.

• Humor: Although this is a serious story, he adds a dash of humor at several points (1:01, 1:20, and 3:46, for example) with offhand, throwaway comments.  An audience can tire of relentless seriousness, even in a serious story, and Elias accounts for this in his presentation.

• Transition into first point: At about 1:30, just as he’s reached a gripping part of the story, he moves into talking about his message — the “three things I learned.”  Does he have our attention?  Oh, yeah.  It’s a smooth transition, and he carries us with him easily.

• Weaving the story, Part I: At about 2:14, after having made his first point, he starts his second.  But first, he remembers to put us briefly back into the story, maintaining our connection with his tale.  “The second thing I learned, as we cleared the George Washington Bridge — just barely…”

• Weaving the story, Part II: At about 3:00, as Elias begins his third point, he once more reconnects with his story world: “As I see the water coming up.”  He talks about his odd realization that dying is not scary, just sad.  We’re still with Elias in that plane, having those realizations along with him.

• Emotion: As if all this weren’t enough, around 3:40, he brings powerful emotion into the story with the honest comment, “I only wish that I could see my kids grow up.”  By allowing himself to be this vulnerable (you can hear him almost choke up), Elias makes an emotional connection with the audience.

• The wrap-up: By 4:18, he’s wrapping up the story of the plane crash and letting us know he was given the gift of a miracle by surviving it.  Of course, we know he survived because we’re listening to him (duh), but the audience needs to hear the story ending to feel complete.

• Call to action: At 4:30, Elias mirrors his opening in the words of his call to action, “Imagine that this same thing happens on your plane.  How would you change? What would you get done that you’re waiting to get done?”  He challenges the audience to examine their own lives and leaves them with a question to ponder.

Now, let’s be honest.  Not every story is as flat-out dramatic as Ric Elias’s tale of the plane crash and what it taught him.  But if you structure your presentation as he did, using humor and emotion, weaving the tale in with your key points, and closing with a strong call to action, your own story is sure to have a happy ending.

Telling stories? Don’t be perfect; just be real

If we’re not an actor or professional storyteller, many of us worry that we’re not “perfect” storytellers. We don’t “do voices,” we have too many ums and ahs, we don’t stand or gesture properly. Sound familiar?

The truth is, all that doesn’t matter.

What counts far more with listeners is whether they feel you are genuine. That’s the key to connection, not a perfect performance. If you’re willing to tell a story as you are, warts and all, and speak from a place of authenticity, you’ll find your listeners responding. Your message will resonate and be remembered because it’s in the form of a story. I guarantee that unless you’re in a Toastmaster’s session, nobody is going to be counting your ums and ahs.

Zappo’s CEO is a corporate storyteller

Want an example? Here’s a link to a fabulous one — CEO Tony Hsie of He paces, he doesn’t always make eye contact, his speaking style is far from flawless. And yet, he connects.

Enjoy the clip, and may you have a story-worthy week!

How to make your listeners actually listen

“Why should I listen to you?” Like it or not, that’s what runs through an audience’s mind whenever we make a presentation or a pitch —even if we’re offering helpful advice.

If your listener doesn’t hear something early on that convinces them you’ve got the goods, they’ll begin tuning out. Oh, they may look at you and nod, but in their heads, they’re secretly composing Facebook status updates and wondering which athlete Kim Kardashian will marry next.

Rather than fight this fact, let’s embrace it — with a hook.


Telling stories is one way to hook people and get them listening — everyone loves a story, after all. But how do you make sure your story grabs their attention from the get-go? Give it a hook.

Yes, that’s right: your hook needs a hook.

Especially if your story starts slowly, catch the listener’s attention up-front by making an implied promise. Your promise could be, “This story addresses your concerns,” or “Here’s a helpful new idea,” or even, “This is a really cool story.” Not in those words, of course. But that’s the message your listener receives.

Every pop song, every news story, every movie trailer has a hook — something intriguing or catchy. That’s what captures our interest enough to make us listen, read, or watch it through to the ending. So take a tip from these other forms of communication. Set the hook early on, and you’ll land your listener.


What hooks? That depends on your audience. Some devices work well for most listeners — humor, for instance. Or foreshadowing. My dad was a master of that last one. I can’t count how many times he’d say something like, “Did I ever tell you about the time I almost got gored by a buffalo?” An opening like that makes you perk up and listen.

A hook could be…
• A provocative question. “What would happen if your deepest secret came out?” Questions like this get listeners thinking about their own lives and empathizing with yours.

• The promise of conflict. I begin one story about my childhood by saying, “It was Jan. 26, 1970, and I was sitting in a 7th grade classroom in Middletown Ohio, paralyzed with mortal terror.” Would you listen to the rest of the set-up to find out why? That’s the power of promising conflict.

• A humorous statement or image. When I speak with young audiences, I sometimes say, “Why did I become an author? I blame it all on Tarzan.” That makes them sit up and take notice. If your story has humor, let ‘em know from the start.

• A surprise. This is easier to say than to pull off. Just make sure that your surprise is actually surprising by reversing your listener’s expectations.

• Plunging midstream into the action. In the movie, Almost Famous, the teen journalist begins his first Rolling Stone story this way: “I’m flying high over Tupelo, Mississippi, with America’s hottest band, and we’re all about to die.” That’s a midstream plunge — we’re already in the story.

These are a few of the many ways to hook your audiences. You may find others. But however you approach it, in the words of writer Paul O’Neill, be sure to “grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph… and hold him against the wall until the tagline.”

Are your stories truly grabbing your listeners? What’s your hook?

How the right story can win you new clients

Want to help sell yourself or your products more effectively?  Unless you have truly AMAZING statistics — “Everyone who uses my service sees their business triple in two days!” — stories trump statistics every time.  Why?  Sales prospects generally have their resistance up.  And while your pitch may hit all the important points, it’s just that — a pitch.  They’ll resist, even if it’s a 100-percent true, zero-hype presentation.

But a client story?  Ah, that’s a different matter.

If you’re relating an anecdote, a true story about one of your clients, then you’re reciting facts, not force-feeding the prospect a list of reasons why they should buy from you.  Their resistance will be much lower, and your impact will be much greater.

To make the buying decision, the prospect first has to achieve a certain level of comfort and trust in you and your offerings, and stories are one of the most effective ways of establishing that emotional connection.

Three simple ingredients

What goes into a compelling client story?  Not much more than the bare bones of the tale.  Borrowing from my Five Fundamentals of StorySelling, all you really need is a Hero with a Problem, an Emotional Hook, and a Satisfying Conclusion, in which your customer’s problem was solved.

In choosing one of these tales, remember that the hero of the story is the CUSTOMER — not you.  Keep the focus on them.  What problem did this customer have?  What solutions did she try?  How did he feel about their lack of success?  And finally, how did your service or product resolve the problem?

That’s all you need.  Want an example?

One of my first StorySelling clients was a high-energy woman called Terri.  She had just written her first book (on how to raise a superstar child), which was about to come out.  She was bursting with pride and full of fear — pride over the book, and fear over her first speaking gig on a cruise ship promoting the book.

She came to me with a messy pile of stories (some great, some not-so-great).  Over the course of several sessions, I worked with Terri to structure her talk, pick and polish the best stories, and prepare for her presentation.

When the big day came, she knocked it out of the park.  People loved her talk and wanted to buy the book.  A happy customer, Terri went on to lead seminars on her topic with the national Parent Teachers Association organization.

Long story short

That wasn’t a very long story, was it?  And it didn’t need to be.  If I’m using that tale to help sell a potential client on my services, I add no more details than you see above, and I try to keep the length around one minute.

Why so short?  I haven’t earned their trust yet.

Someone who knows me may have the patience for a 3-minute anecdote, but a brand-new acquaintance?  Not so much.  However, almost everyone will sit still for a brief “let me give you an example” story.

Short and sweet is the key.  Something around a minute — two, if you must — is right in the ballpark for this type of client tale.

Notice how all I covered in the story was my Hero with a Problem (Terri), Emotional Hook (her fear), a little bit about her process, and then the Satisfying Conclusion?  If you tell your tale right, that’s all you need.  Your customer will be one step closer to trusting you and buying what you sell.

And that leads to exactly the kind of satisfying conclusion we all want to hear.

Are you facing Obama’s dilemma: Professor vs. Preacher?

Now, I’m not a particularly political guy.  I’m more interested in how people communicate than in the daily sturm und drang of the Washington scene.  But one thing I have noticed: Our president’s communication style has changed.

And it’s not helping him.

Compare Obama in earlier campaign mode with Obama in current governing mode.  Yes, he’s still articulate and intelligent, still a good communicator.  But he’s gone from preacher to professor, losing some effectiveness in the process.

As preacher on the campaign trail, he spoke to hearts and minds.  He told powerful stories — witness the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when his own personal story was the subject…

…or his 2008 acceptance speech, where he told the moving tale of 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper, a woman born just a generation past slavery, who was finally able to vote for a mixed race president.

Powerful stuff.  He went for the emotions, and he connected with voters, galvanizing the nation.  That’s the preacher.

But the Obama we’ve seen lately has been mired in governance — professorial territory.  He’s trotting out facts and figures, telling us what we should do.  And though we know it’s important stuff, our eyes glaze over, our interest sags.

In short, we’re not convinced.  Need evidence?  Witness his recent address on raising the debt ceiling:

Now, granted, governance isn’t as sexy as campaigning on ideas.  The issues of governance are complicated, nuanced, and tricky as hell to communicate.  But do the presentations need to be so dull along with it?  Dullness doesn’t win hearts and minds, and that’s why Obama’s current speeches need more preacher and less professor.

Anytime you’re appealing to someone, trying to persuade and get them to make a decision, you’re sunk unless you can reach their emotions.  Do you still need logic?  Of course.  Both sides of the brain — left and right — must be satisfied before we feel comfortable deciding.  That means we need logic and statistics, along with stories and metaphors.

But here’s the kicker.  Despite its phenomenal evolution, the human brain is still wired to respond more to the emotional than the cognitive.  That means we make most of our decisions based on feelings rather than facts — as one glance at the stock market will tell you.  What does this mean?

Ultimately, stories rule.

So if I were a president trying to govern a polarized nation, I’d draw more on the preacher and less on the professor.  Can you really weave stories and metaphors from such uninspiring material as debt ceilings?

Of course you can.  But that’s a story for another time.

Does intention affect your communication?

While on a speaking tour in Alaska last month, a close encounter with a 400-pound black bear got me thinking about the power of intention.  What do bears have to teach about communication?  Plenty.

Here’s the story.  I had a day off in Seward, and so I took the shuttle to Exit Glacier, to get in some hiking.  It was a stunning setting — snow-capped peaks surrounding a green valley, and the massive blue-white glacier at the head of it, stretching up and up.

I took the trail beside the glacier and soon left other tourists behind as I climbed higher and higher.  Much too soon, I had to turn around and hike back, to be sure I caught the noon shuttle.

So here I am, trucking downhill, with not much on my mind but “Gee, it’s beautiful,” when I spy a hiker about 50 yards ahead.  She’s waving her arms at me, crying, “Stop!  Bear!”  I turn, and there, in a pine tree to my left, about ten feet away, are a pair of black bear cubs.  The bushes at the foot of the tree rustle, and I hear a deep grunting, growling sound.  Mama Bear.

I can’t see her, but I slowly back up to a more comfortable distance.  (The last thing you want to do is worry a mama bear with cubs.)  And then I wait, figuring she’ll get her cubs out of the tree and lead them away from the human.  And I wait.  And I wait.

Finally, I realize I’ve got to leave right now if I want to make that shuttle back to Seward and catch my train to Anchorage.  I can’t go off-trail on the right because the slope is too steep, and I definitely can’t go bushwhacking on the left, because that’s where the bears are.

I’ve only got one choice: go straight down the trail.  Being the Californian I am, I decide to do it with a peaceful intention.  I take a deep breath, mentally surround myself with white light and calm vibes, and say, “Mama Bear, here I come.”  Then I stomp down the trail nice and loud, heading past the bear tree.

When I pull even with the tree, I look to my left.  At the base of the tree, there sits a huge black bear — not growling, not charging, but just looking at me.  All the hairs on my neck stand up, and adrenaline courses through my veins.  But I don’t freak, I just keep walking steadily down the trail, away from the bears.

Did the mama bear let me pass peacefully because my intentions were peaceful?  Or was it because she was used to humans walking through her territory?  I don’t know.  All I know is that I passed the bears and made my shuttle back to town, nerves jangling for half an hour afterwards.

Are you facing a situation where communications could be challenging?  Before you open your mouth, set your intention for the encounter.  You may not notice a difference.  But you may find that your focus and intent will carry you through without a scratch.  At least, that’s what the bears taught me.

What kinds of stories should I learn?

Earlier this year, I was invited to contribute a chapter to a unique book for speakers and presenters: the National Speakers Association’s PAID TO SPEAK.  If you make presentations of any kind, you’ll find it invaluable.  Check it out at:  Here’s an excerpt from my chapter on storytelling, addressing the essential types of stories every speaker should learn…

You’ll find a wide variety of story types out there — everything from the archetypal Hero’s Journey to the apocryphal (and overdone) Starfish Story.  Although each has its place, five types of tales in particular are indispensable for speakers:

Signature story

Have you ever sat in the audience and marveled at a speaker’s story, a tale that was intensely personal and yet universal?  That’s a signature story, and in many cases it can serve as the foundation of a presentation.  Signature stories generally tend to be longer and full of detail.  (If you don’t yet have one, use the processes in the “Your Life” section to help unearth yours.)

One of my own signature stories involves the time I foolishly volunteered to play Elvis and perform a parody song at a nonprofit’s fundraiser — after not having been onstage for 17 years.  The story is personal and specific to me.  Yet I’ve heard from audience members years later that its catchphrase became a catchphrase in their own family.  That’s universal.

Why I’m Here story

This helps you make an emotional connection with the listener, and it can be told one-on-one or in a group.  As distinct from the signature story, the why-I’m-here story should be a brief one.  It helps sell you to your listener; it lets them know, in essence, who you are.

For example, an acquaintance was getting ready to dump her financial advisor, who had terrible people skills.  When my exasperated friend asked the advisor, “Why are you doing this job anyway?” she got a story in response.  The advisor revealed that she’d been raised by a single mother, living hand-to-mouth, and that when she grew up, she vowed to do whatever she could to keep other women from undergoing that same trauma.

Did it work?  My friend stayed with the advisor.

Elephant in the Room story

If you know your audience is thinking or feeling something that they’re not expressing, you can address their concerns in a non-confrontational way with a story. Often, this can disarm listeners and shift their perspective — or at least let them know you understand their concerns.

I heard a tale about a hotshot young CEO who was going to speak at his first board meeting, to a board composed of grizzled industry veterans.  He knew they’d be skeptical of his abilities and attitude.  So he told the tale of how he once ignored advice when getting his yacht ready to sail, and what he learned from that.  The story helped start their new relationship on an even keel (so to speak).

Success story

This is a short story or case study that helps establish your bona fides.  Generally, it’s a tale of how someone used your product or service and how it helped him or her solve a problem.  This type of story can be used one-on-one, in meetings, and with audiences.

In my own talks, I sometimes tell how I consulted with a city councilman on his reelection campaign, helping him choose and refine stories to address key issues.  He went on to win reelection.  While I wish I could claim all the credit for that, there’s no doubt that his improved storytelling helped.

Example story

This can serve to punctuate a key point in your presentation.  Generally, you’ll want to keep your example stories short and sweet, especially if you’ve got a lot of points to cover.  The tale can occur before or after the learning point, and it can be positive or negative, depending upon the effect you seek.

In my presentations, I make a point about the importance of understanding your listener before telling your tale.  In my example story, a financial advisor loses his client by recommending she invest heavily in Japanese stocks — not having bothered to learn that the woman lost her husband in WWII to a Japanese bomb.  The story is negative, but it makes the point.

Can storytelling make employee meetings more effective?

A Hawaii healthcare organization faced that most corporate of challenges: staging a company meeting that employees would actually learn and benefit from.  (As opposed to suffering through — a problem with many employee meetings I’ve attended.)

How could they ensure that the workforce actually retained and embraced the new company vision and goals?

The organization had not used business storytelling much, except in new hire orientations, where it had proven successful.  The senior management team took a leap of faith.  They decided to try a storytelling approach, rather than a didactic approach to their meeting.  Furthermore, they chose to be inclusive, rather than exclusive.

This inclusiveness even extended to the meeting venue.  Instead of bringing the entire workforce to some impersonal hotel ballroom, the team decided to bring the meeting to the employees.  The presentations would take place over several months, in small, natural workgroups, scheduled at their convenience.

Volunteers from the senior management team took their meeting on the road.  Working from an outline, they told company stories and used metaphors that communicated the organization’s vision and strategies for achieving it.  The central metaphor of the outrigger canoe expressed the teamwork it would take to succeed.  Moreover, the team created plenty of opportunity for employees to ask questions, engaging them in considering how their jobs contributed to the organization’s vision.

“The employee reception to it was fantastic,” says one of the company’s former human resources executives.  “It was better than anything we’d ever tried before to get out the message about who we are, what we do, where we were headed, and what it would take for us to get there.”

Of course, rave reviews are all well and good.  But what of the long-term effects?

As it happens, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) audited the company several months later.  Their findings?  “People remembered,” said the HR exec.  “Everyone recalled our theme, and they could tell how their job fit into it — no matter what position they held.

“The auditors were blown away by how well employees knew the organization’s purpose and vision.  I don’t think the workforce would have remembered all that they did without the storytelling process.”

Can storytelling help your company meeting succeed?  Take a leap of faith and find out.

Good stories mean money

Lisa Holzman, development director for the Santa Barbara Symphony, came early to last year’s StorySelling for Nonprofits workshop, wearing a worried look.  Her problem?  Donations had been steadily declining, and it was hard to get people to give to a cause perceived as “nonessential and artsy” — especially when the economy was so tight.

She wondered, could the power of story help her organization raise money?

Lisa took the workshop, thanked me, and left.  And I always wondered, how did her story come out?

Last week, I got an email from Lisa that made me smile.  She shared a response she’d received to a solicitation “story” letter she’d crafted using concepts learned in my workshop.  A complimentary letter arrived from a prominent local actor who’d had a long career in marketing at TIME magazine.  In part, it said:

  • Dear Lisa — Last month you sent out a letter…in an envelope with “Do You Remember Your FIRST concert?” blazoned across the front. I’ve been trying to find the time to write and tell you that it enclosed one of the most powerful and skillful pieces of marketing I’ve seen since I left Time Magazine in the late 1960’s…. Thank you for such a matchless promotion, which cemented my determination to increase our quarterly gifts.

In her email, Lisa told me: “It is the human story that engages our constituents. It is for us to find that story and to tell it over and over again, in different ways, but so it touches their heart, not just their mind and pocketbook.”

I couldn’t have said it any better.  Stories have power.  And telling the right story at the right time connects us with other people, while it reaps for us bottom-line rewards.  Head and heart and wallet — and all from a story.

What stories have affected your bottom line lately?

Talk story with me?

When I moved to Hawaii back in the ‘80s, I was moving way too fast for the place.  I’d just come off a couple of years in Tokyo, and my big city attitude was: “Let’s get it done, and let’s get it done now. Chop-chop, people!”  But that’s not the Island way.

The first friends and business contacts I made there encouraged me to slow down, linger awhile, and “talk story.”  Talk with them?  About stories?  Why on earth would I do that?  The concept needed explaining.  In Hawaii, it turns out, talking story means taking time to connect with the other person.  It means hearing their stories and letting them in on yours.

At first, I had a hard time adjusting to this style of doing business.  “How does anyone get anything done when they’re so busy yakking away?” I grumbled.  But eventually I tumbled to the benefits.  Talking story is how trust and relationships are built.  When you feel know something about the other person’s character, you can begin to trust them, and one of the best ways to learn about someone is to hear their stories.

Now, I wonder why the business world outside Hawaii doesn’t talk story more often?  After all, trust is the currency of so many business relationships, is it not?  We know this.

But too often, we take a left-brained approach, expecting that facts and figures alone are the ticket to successful business relationships.  We forget about the human side of the business equation.

Although I’ve long since moved from Hawaii back to the Mainland, I’ve carried that notion of talking story with me, like a good-luck penny in my pocket.  This blog is the beginning of a conversation about using stories in work and in life.  I’ll share my own stories, as well as those of other people.

And I hope you’ll share your tales too.

How has story affected your life?  Do you tell tales on your job?  Do you find they serve a business purpose, or do you feel they’re just a bunch of yakking?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Let’s talk story.