People often ask me about storytelling in speeches – why should they go to the trouble to come up with good stories, what does it mean to tell a story, and how do you do it.

They’re all good questions.  Let me take them in turn.

Why go to the trouble?  Because if you take the other road – informing the audience of something – no matter how interesting the information, you’ll run up against the limitation of the brain and quickly overtax your audience. We can only remember, they say, 7 plus or minus 2 things.  Most of the time, I think you only get to tell an audience 4 or 5 because they’ve already got 2 or 3 things rattling around in their brains before you start talking.

What happens is that audiences attempt to store your information in their frontal lobes as a list, and within about 30 seconds, their mental hoppers are full.

If instead you tell your audience a story, you get to jump right into the deeper parts of their brain, where emotion and memory work together, the hippocampus and amygdala.  They hear your words differently, because they compare them with stories they’ve heard before and log them in along with The Lord of the Rings, Iron Man 3, and Bambi.

So tell stories because you greatly increase the likelihood that they’ll remember what you say.  If you do it well – by telling a great story.  As I’ve blogged before, there are 5 great stories – the Quest, Stranger in a Strange Land, Revenge, Rags to Riches and Love Story.  You want to tell one of those.  Well.

What does it mean to tell a story?  Telling a story means first of all making your audience the hero.  Then, taking your audience on a journey – one of those 5 great journeys I mentioned above, a journey with complications, danger, struggle, and above all decisions.  In other words, a story arc.  Because it’s a speech and the audience is the hero, you want to arrive at a happy ending – that’s the end of the arc.  You and your audience make the right decision, and the division is saved, the product is launched, or the prize is won. But first you and your audience have to get through the struggle, the peril, and the agonies of a great tale.  Think about The Lord of the Rings or Iron Man 3 or Bambi – how much peril each of those stories puts its heroes in.  That’s what it means to tell a story.

How do you do it? If you’re talking about a product, don’t list features.  That’s not a story.  Instead, find an unusual customer usage case and talk about that.  How did the product change that customer’s life for the better?  Or talk about the personas of customers that might buy the product and how they might use it.  Or put the product at the climax of the story arc – like those old Mr. Clean TV ads where the product saves the day by cleaning up the spill.  Or talk about how the product will change the audience’s life.  Find the story arc, the tension and release, the problem and solution.  That’s how you do it.

Telling stories makes the difference between boring, forgettable speeches, and speeches that people remember.  Do the hard work.  Find the story.  Tell it like only you know how.





  1. Great article Nick. Would you pls share the link of your blog about the five stories – Quest, Stranger in a Strange Land, Revenge, Rags to Riches and Love Story? Would love to read!

  2. Excellent article. I would also love see your blog about the five stories. Thank you for all the articles, I look forward to getting them.

    Kind regards
    John Keating , Cork, Ireland

  3. One other question if I may, where do you find great stories, in the business context. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and ET are great stories but for a business audience what are the best stories. Is it business failures and rising from the ashes, like the phoenix. Stories of struggle, of getting ideas and projects off the ground. Stories of rejection, rejection and finaly acceptance??

    Kind regards
    John Keating, Cork, Ireland

    1. Hi, John — the short answer is yes, those are the kind of stories you want. When we work with clients we spend a good deal of time listening for precisely those sorts of ups and downs out of which great stories are crafted. Today you need to show up with authenticity, and that means mining your own biography (and the organizations you’ve worked with) for great stories.

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