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Public Speaking Tips - How To Tell A Story Well

Updated on May 21, 2013

Master of Story - Tom Ware

The writer and master of storyt, Tom Ware, at seventy-five.
The writer and master of storyt, Tom Ware, at seventy-five.

Oral storytelling is very different from writing a story.

In this essay, on how to tell a story well, I am talking about oral storytelling not writing one for a reader. There is a big difference. In a book, the reader can skip a bit, realize it, and then glance back and re-read it. In oral storytelling the listener has no chance of doing that. That part of the story has been told and unless you heard it, comprehended it, then you missed it – sorry! It could have, of course, been a critical part of the tale and once missed could have made much of what is to follow fairly senseless. Natural continuity without strain is a requirement in oral storytelling.

In Public Speaking and oral storytelling the onus is on the teller.

The onus of the story’s telling is on the teller not the listener. Just as it is the writer’s responsibility to make his or her meaning clear to the reader, it is the teller’s task to ensure that what he or she is saying is not misinterpreted by the listener. So it becomes a matter of getting an idea in your mind (and perhaps heart) into the mind and heart of the listener as accurately as you can.

Tom Ware wowing an audience with an story.

Your must be understood first time.

Some things are obvious. You must be heard. You must be understood. But there is a little more to it than those two obvious aspects. You must be heard means that if you’re telling your story to an audience that everyone there can hear it. This might necessitate the use of a microphone. Don’t hesitate to use one if you suspect that anyone in the room cannot hear you. I make a point of using a microphone whenever I can in any group over about thirty people, and sometimes even less if I suspect the acoustics are poor.

The audience needs have familiarity and understanding with the language spoken.

You must be understood means that the audience must understand the meaning of the words. If you are to tell a story well, it is fundamental that if you’re an English-speaker that all the people in that audience have familiarity and everyday usage with the English Language. It’s pointless trying to tell a tale when everyone in the room is, for example, Chinese, and can only understand Cantonese or Mandarin. These things are obvious but still need to be said. For even if those in the audience can to a degree understand part of what you say, the subtle nuances, indeed even the not so subtle, will be lost to them. Humor, satire, et cetera varies enormously from country to country and a story which would go down exceptionally well in one culture might even engender hostility in another

A master of story is generally in demand.

Tom Ware in action at a Probus Club.
Tom Ware in action at a Probus Club.

A story is not just the relaying of facts.

A story is not just a relaying of facts. Neither is it an informative speech. The power of a story comes from the visualizations, along with the subsequent emotions it can arouse in the heart and mind of the listener. So what enables this?

Firstly, the listener must have no doubt as to such things as the setting, the main character, and the challenge or problem. This you might call ‘the set up’ or ‘the situation.’ In a story there is a situation, and the listener is drawn in by it and wants to know what happens. In order for the listener to be able to visualize the situation, they need at least to have some cursory knowledge or experience of it. This does not mean they need to have lived through such a situation personally. However they must have at least some knowledge. They may have read about it, seen a film about it, or been told about it at an earlier stage of their lives. For example, it would be pointless to attempt to tell about an audience about being lost in a snow storm if the listeners had not the faintest idea what snow is.

So how do we tell a story well?

So how do we tell a story well? We need to pick on subjects we’re pretty certain our audience know something about. Most of our knowledge is built on as an extension of previous knowledge. Listeners are comfortable with this sort of progression. If you hit them with something so new and unusual to them that it does not register, you’ll have lost their attention. They’ll be in their own minds, fumbling with a discourse of verbal thought as they try to figure out what you meant when you said, “……………” So give them something they can immediately picture. Set the scene, and then build on that scene until you feel it is established in their mind’s eye. And don’t be in too much of a hurry to get on with the rest of the story. That opening is very important. Below is an example of what I mean. It’s one of my stories I’ve told many times before. I call it, “The Hoodoo Ship.”

The sea was glassy smooth.

"And upon that sea was a fleet of ships..."

“Ladies and Gentlemen (pause)

“On the night of the 3rd of June 1969 the South China Sea was glassy smooth (pause) and a full moon shone down turning its surface to a burnished silver (pause) and upon that sea was a fleet of ship – warships, playing war games “ (long pause)

Now, remember to speak slowly, deliberately. And never be afraid of the pause, for that is when the listeners are able to put together and assimilate what you’re on about. The only pause that is not a good one is when it appears to an audience to be contrived. That does not happen if you’re natural and go with the flow of your own story. You see it in your mind as you tell it. Do that, and you stand a far better chance of their being able to see it in theirs.

Ensure the set up is clear to the listener.

That’s the introduction. Now comes the set up (or in this instance a part of it)

“These ships of war were divided into two groups, but overall they were under the command of an American admiral aboard the giant United States Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Kearsage (pause)

“The smaller of the two groups comprised three United States Navy destroyers – or tin cans, as the Yankee sailors ironically call them – a British frigate, a New Zealand anti-submarine frigate, and our own light fleet aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne.

“The job of the Melbourne that night was to find and destroy a so-called enemy submarine. This meant night flying (pause) They were imitating real wartime conditions. All the ships were blacked out. No navigation lights were showing.”

So the listener is wondering what will happen next.

HMAS Voyager at speed.

Introduce the potential conflict.


“On the bridge of the Melbourne is Captain John Stephenson – a very experienced officer. Stephenson is pacing here and there. First he glances out to ensure that all the ships around him are on station; all safely placed. Next he moves to where his radar operator is looking at his radar screen (pause)

‘Blip-blip, blip-blip, blip-blip.

(Yes, makes these sounds that indicate an aural signal can be heard)

“He stares once again, this time through his night-vision binoculars. All appears to be in order. Then he issues an order to his radio man. “To the Frank E Evans. Take aero plane guard, my port quarter. Melbourne’s course 260 degrees.” (pause)

“There is no response from the Frank E Evans. It is as if they have not heard him.”

In Public Speaking or Oral Storytelling, If you can move your audience to laughter and tears, you've succeeded.

I won’t go on any further with this story other than to tell you that it is based on a real life occurrence. It is a dramatic story. It is emotional. Indeed, I’ve had listeners moved to tears, even crying quite loudly when I’ve told this. So what I’m saying is that to tell a story well you really do need to reach into their hearts. Do this, and they will love you as a storyteller. But more than that, you will have left an indelible impression which could well change in some small way the way they see the world from thereon. This is the gift of how to tell a story well.


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