How to be Good at Telling Stories – 6 Storytelling Principles

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It’s so annoying when you tell a story and people’s eyes start drifting. Or, when the story’s over, no one reacts.

(Or even worse, all you get is pity laughs.)

I have a friend who’s a natural storyteller. Today, I’m going to share the principles he uses to keep everyone’s attention and turn mundane everyday events into interesting stories.

Once, he told me a story that went something like this:

“So, I wake up to this important day full of exams and meetings. Almost immediately, I feel the stress when I realize that I’d slept past my alarm clock.

I’m feeling totally exhausted, but I start preparing myself for the day anyway. I take a quick shower and shave. But I just can’t stop feeling tired and I’m actually throwing up a little on my way out from the bathroom.

I get scared because of all this, but I I still prepare breakfast and get dressed. I stare at the porridge but I can’t eat and want to throw up again.

I take up my phone to cancel my meetings – and that’s when I see it’s 1:30 AM.”

This story shows that you don’t need to experience amazing things or have a remarkable life story to be good at telling stories.

A good storyteller can take mundane life events and turn them into something everyone around them loves to hear.

We’re going to talk about why this is such a well-told story and 6 fundamental principles to tell an interesting story.

As you know, I don’t believe in trying to memorize loads of principles for a social setting, because when you have people’s eyes on you, you won’t remember them anyway.

Instead, what we will do is to go through the 6 principles together so that you can practice great storytelling right now.

And then, when it feels natural for you to tell stories this way, you can start doing it in social settings.

1: Tell stories closely related to the situation, topic, or mood

You should only tell stories that match what the conversation is currently about. In other words, happy stories in happy contexts. Sad stories in sad contexts, and so on.

This sounds obvious, but let’s say that you have this great story you want to tell – and the conversation moves on and people start talking about another topic.

Should you backtrack and say “By the way, earlier, when we talked about…”?

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That MIGHT work in a one-on-one, but almost never in a group conversation. We want to follow the flow of the conversation rather than trying to steer it.

No matter how good a story is, it will feel a bit off if it isn’t related to the situation or the mood.

2: Avoid one-upping others stories

This one’s counter-intuitive. If someone tells a story and everyone loves it, we probably start thinking about similar stories we can tell.

We instinctively want to get a similarly positive reaction like that other person just got.

But if we instantly start talking about our own experience, the other person will feel one-upped or de-throned.

We steal their spot in the limelight.

So, if someone shares a funny thing that happened when they were in Guatemala, it’s often better to avoid talking about an even funnier thing that happened when you were in Venezuela.

This is as true for one-on-ones as it is for group conversations.

First, always give the other person their deserved attention, ask follow-up questions, laugh with everyone and enjoy the moment. THEN, you can tell your story.

3: People don’t want to hear stories about how good you are

Notice earlier how my friend’s story about how he woke up too early doesn’t portray him as a hero. Instead, it shows how he struggles in everyday life.

A story about a struggle is almost always more interesting than one of success. In most cases, success becomes interesting first when it comes after a struggle.

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You can still talk about good things about yourself. But it’s good to know that it’s ineffective for the sake of entertainment.

A story is more valuable in a social setting if it makes people feel good, instead of inferior, about themselves.

Read more: How to gain the respect of people around you.

4: Add the right amount of context in your stories

This is the reason my friend mentioned the important meetings and exams that day. Those details helped you understand why he was so stressed.

However, there’s a common mistake some people do here. You know people who can babble on about the details FOREVER and never get to the point?

That’s why it’s important to only add context that is needed for the story.

I see a lot of people struggling with this by giving too much information. Their stories often become tedious and you get lost in the details. On the other hand, when people give too little context, it’s hard to understand the point of the story.

So, too much context in the example from my friend would be if he also talked about what he did the night before as a preface.

That wouldn’t be relevant because it wouldn’t make the story more interesting.

But if he didn’t mention the meetings and exams, or that he puked or couldn’t eat his porridge, the story would be less entertaining and colorful.

5: Tell different stories for different people

Tell different stories to your grandparents than to your friends.

Ask yourself if the audience might have been in a similar situation.

If they have, they will think the story is a lot funnier. My friend’s story is much more fun for people who have to wake up early in the morning themselves.

Why? Because we’re more emotionally involved when we can put ourselves in the position of the one in the story.

6: Tell stories bottom-up rather than top-down

In, say, a scientific report, the most important finding comes first: “Scientists discover cure for Alzheimer’s”.

After the most important thing has been said, background and context are explained.

This is called top-down and it’s great for just getting important information across but a boring way to tell a story.

Good stories are bottom-up. First, you get the context and the background. Then, on the last page of the book or in the last scene in the movie, they reveal who the murderer is. This creates suspense, and without suspense, people lose interest.

If I retell the story like most people intuitively would have done it, top-down style, it would sound something like this:

I woke up at 1:30 this night and was totally sure that my alarm had already gone off. But I didn’t get that until I checked my phone later. So I went up anyway and felt terrible and couldn’t eat breakfast or anything and even threw up a little because I didn’t get that it was so early. And I was even about to cancel my events for the day.

Telling the story top-down like this creates an entirely different effect. Instead of coming off as entertaining, it comes off as complaining. Instead of laughs, we get pity.

Here, I started off by giving off the most important piece away first: That it was only 1:30 in the morning. That’s why it came off as boring. In a good story, we want to go bottom-up. First, we set the context and then let the punch come at the very end.

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David Morin is the founder of SocialPro. He's been writing about social skills since 2012. Follow on Twitter or read more.

Go to Comments (3)

3 thoughts on “How to be Good at Telling Stories – 6 Storytelling Principles”

  1. It’s true that some people have natural good storytelling skills. But others can learn it too, through practice and by following a few tips. As you have mentioned, it is very important to tell stories that are related to discussion topic or mood of the gathering. If you start telling a story that is not related to the topic being discussed, it is very likely that people with not listen to you and they may even get annoyed.

    Reply
  2. If I followed all your advice I’d be trying to remember 157 different principles. Just perfect for someone who overthinks. Do you actually see the flaw in your advice?

    Reply
    • In the program that this extract is taken from, you get exercises for how to internalize the advice before you go into a social setting by practicing this form of storytelling on your own.

      That way, you don’t have to deal with overwhelm.

      If you want to focus on only one thing, I would recommend rule number 6.

      Reply

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