How to Tell Great Stories That Engage

Sometimes your stories flop. 


That’s okay. You are in good company. 


We tell stories all of the time, sometimes unconsciously. We tell the stories of our day to our family, share the stories of our business with our colleagues, and even post Instagram stories to the world to showcase everything happening to us. 


And sometimes, the stories flop. 


Your family rolls their eyes, your co-workers start checking their email, your Instagram account goes ghost town with responses. 


There are many reasons for this. Storytelling is an art and a science; while it may sometimes be simple, it is not always easy. And there are key elements of storytelling that are most often ignored. Brain science teaches us that stories that engage us, stories that keep our attention, are the ones that take us on a journey of emotions and hormones. 


That’s right. Storytelling is a way to hack someone’s (even your own) emotional responses to something and call them to action. Here are the three key elements of telling great stories that engage our audiences and move them to do something different. 


Surprise: Give Us Motivation To Listen


Surprise is not necessarily jumping out of a cake during someone’s secret birthday celebration. Think of surprise as breaking a pattern or changing a belief. Our brains crave patterns and security. When those patterns are broken, we pay attention because we think they might be a threat to our safety. 


And, sometimes it is! Sometimes a break in pattern (noises in your basement at night, someone driving the wrong direction on a highway, tornado sirens blasting [although, if you live in Iowa, apparently that is a signal to go outside and get a good view]) are a signal for us to see what may be putting us in danger. 


However, even if it is not dangerous, our brain doesn’t know the difference. If we feel a break in a pattern, our brain immediately releases dopamine or the motivation hormone. This chemical literally gives us a boost to stay focused and present. Our brains LOVE dopamine, and we are going to repeat an activity if it brings us more of that feeling. 


And, if we listen to a story that matters to us, we become a captive audience. 


Questions To Consider With Surprise

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you are planning your story:

  • What pattern am I breaking?
  • What am I challenging in myself?
  • Do others experience the same break in the pattern?
  • Do others experience the change in themselves? 
  • Who am I making the hero of the story? 



Before we move on, it is important to understand who the story is about. Too often, we think that our break in a pattern is significant enough to capture someone else’s ideas. However, if you are telling a story to call someone to action: you are NOT the hero of that story. For more on this bonus lesson, check out my Youtube Video as I unpack it. 


Conflict: Stress Us Out


This morning, I woke up, walked downstairs, made my coffee, and sat with my dog while I read and sipped on my delicious brew. 


HEY! Are you still with me? I thought I might lose you with that “story,” which is not really a story but rather a sequence of events. Great stories have conflict. They have opposing forces that add to the break of pattern and belief you established in the surprise element. 


While most of us are conflict avoidant (I mean, who really wants to choose conflict?), our brains listen to stories with conflict as a self-defense mechanism. Conscious or not, we are keenly aware that listening to someone else go through conflict will teach us how to survive that situation, should we ever be in that situation. 


In short, your audience’s brain is listening to you to learn how to solve the problems you have. That’s why it is so important for you to make the audience the hero of your story. When we, as your audience, start to understand conflict, our brain releases cortisone or the stress hormone. This is to keep attention on the story YOU are telling us because we don’t want to lose out on an important life-changing strategy we could learn without having to go through the problems you did to get there


It is the brain’s shortcut to survival. See how someone else struggled – don’t do that. See how someone overcame the struggle – do that!


Tell a story that gives me that shortcut, and I am glued to your every word. 


Questions To Consider With Conflict

  • Is my conflict clear? 
  • Does my audience also experience this conflict?
  • How have others dealt with this conflict? Why did that not work for me? 
  • What is different about the way that I talk about this conflict that will keep the audience’s attention?


Vulnerability: Love To Be Human


We love a good hero story. But a hero is not a hero unless they overcame something, solved something, or did something that others were not expecting them to. That means that, at some point in their journey, they stumbled and even failed. 


I know that seems counterintuitive to telling a great story, especially a story that is meant to call someone to action. Why would you want to share how much you struggled with your path in front of others? Doesn’t that show weakness? 


As storytellers, we are to give hope where there is no hope. Don’t expect your audience to celebrate your victory if you haven’t told us how hard it was to get to the finish line of that victory in the first place. When you are vulnerable, and you share that we are human just like the rest of us, that vulnerability releases oxytocin, or the love hormone. 


That’s right; your audience will actually feel a connection with you when you share with them what was difficult for you. We also see that whatever you have accomplished now is also available to us because we are human too. 


Questions To Consider With Vulnerability

  • Are you telling this story to vent out emotions, or are you telling it to serve your audience?
  • Is this a story that has been mostly worked out, or are you trying to work out the emotions from the stage? 
  • Are you showing your vulnerability with power and control? Are you talking about what you did feel instead of what you did feel? 


Storytelling and speaking are a lot like the construction of a building. Every building is completely different. But every building has a foundation, plumbing, electrical, walls, etc. Consider this your first building block, the blueprint to your building before you start adding your unique personality and value to the way you deliver the story and the way you serve your audiences.

For my video covering all of this, click here.