How to draw listeners into your story

Lab Management

Imagine you’ve been invited for a presentation, a talk, or a pitch. You’ve been allotted 15- maybe 30-minutes to share your story. Turns out, you only have a few seconds to grab someone’s interest. You need a hook.

Imagine you're invited for a presentation, a talk, or a pitch. You're allotted 15- maybe 30-minutes to share your story. It turns out you only have a few seconds to grab someone's interest. You need a hook. Here, I describe how to draw listeners into any story. Your story can be technical, it can be abstract, but it must be a story.

When I first started giving presentations, I did what everyone did:

  1. tell them what you're going to tell them
  2. tell them
  3. tell them what you told them

Recipe for success, right? Well, maybe if you're in the 1990s and pitching your big idea. But then I learned that this format breaks down because people get bored. It doesn't tell a story. And humans are storytelling creatures.

Imagine someone giving an outline of a store before it even begins. In this story, I'm going to tell you about a girl who goes into the home of three bears and proceeds to try all their stuff before falling asleep in their bed. "Once upon a time, there was a girl named goldilocks…." It doesn't work.

Storytelling follows a classic arc. The most interesting stories begin with tension or some element of human drama. What is it that you wanted to do? What was the problem that you tried to solve? You need to set this up soon; otherwise, you are not grabbing the listeners' visceral interest.

Next, you need to tell the listener what they are about to see. People have a short attention span and want to quickly know whether or not what you will tell them will be interesting or valuable. Don't draw out a long, suspenseful build-up to the value. Let them know right away.

All the while, you need to be delivering value. As you weave together your narrative, you're telling a story about something you learned, saw, or know. It's your story, so be sure to add human elements. Remember: you are the main character.

But at the same time, the best stories draw the listener in too. You want them to be there right next to you, feeling the things that you feel, seeing the things that you see. So make sure to add enough detail that it is interesting and provides texture for the viewer. Without them next to you, you are telling a story to no one.

Finally, in the end, you need to resolve the tension that you set up at the beginning. You need to provide a resolution. But also, you need to deliver on the promise of value.

Summarizing at the end is OK, but a call to action is even better. What does the listener do next? For many YouTube videos, the call to action is often to watch another video LOL. For funding agencies, the call to action is to give money. But in many cases, the call to action is for the listener to put themselves into your shoes, and to see the world from your perspective. You just shared something with them that they didn't know before. You showed them a new way of looking at the world. The most compelling stories change how we see or think about something. If you think back to a memorable lesson or a time when you learned something, almost certainly you have a story to tell about it. So with this fresh perspective, go forward and tell your stories.

Now, this usually is where I would end the story 👆. However, I want to show you behind the curtain. The structure I just laid out for you in this piece is the structure of good storytelling. If you think of the main points that I try to lay out here:

  • Start with a hook
  • Introduce tension that needs to be resolved
  • Tell your story in a human way to draw the viewer in
  • Resolve your question or your tension
  • Finish with a call to action

These are precisely the elements that I have used in the piece thus far. Go ahead and reread it to identify these elements.

Storytelling arcs are present in everyday lives. Think of Disney or Star Wars: Once upon a time… Until one day… Then the hero had to… Until finally…

Think of sharing your day at family dinner: Today at recess… Then this other kid… That made me feel… So I needed to…

Think of writing a scientific paper: This disease is a big problem. We know this is an important pathway. However, we don't understand how… That we set out to you… We found… In conclusion, this means...

Think of pitching a $1 million idea: Everybody does… But nobody can… With this new widget, everyone will be able to…

Storytelling narratives are everywhere. As soon as you see them, you too can tell your story in this way. 👈 OK, I can't help myself. See right there? I did it again. I had a call to action that encouraged you to view the world in a new way — a beautiful way to wrap this up. So now, go forward and tell your story.