How to Win Over Every Audience: The 5 Stages of Successful Storytelling
“I thought to myself in a panic, “What am I going to do?” Then I had an idea. “Let me tell you a story,” I said. At the word story, everyone’s head jerked up and all eyes were on me. I knew I only had a few seconds to start a story that would hold their attention.” — 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, Susan Weinschenk
My grandfather used to grab my undivided attention for hours with his amazing stories of when he was younger and the world was a different place.
He was a simple country man with only four years of formal education. But that didn’t stop him from capturing everyone’s attention and bewitching his audience with a rollercoaster of emotions played out through his body and voice.
He was a rock star when it came to telling a story, with his gift of using words to build pictures in our minds that were full of life. A natural born storyteller, people would say.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Climbing the Storytelling Mountain
What my grandfather had was a natural talent for understanding what made people tick. To sell his work, his products and sometimes his less conventional ideas, he had to understand that what matters is the story behind the object or the person.
To sell a great product, you need a great story.
He learned that you need people to pay attention to what you have to say in order for them to support your ideas. One his first lessons was: “when people don’t pay attention to you, try to understand why.”
Raised in the countryside, surrounded by mountains, my grandfather painted the perfect picture. He used to say that telling stories is like climbing a mountain, which is done in stages. You start slow, with a steady rhythm. As you get higher, you get excited and rush to the top for the amazing view. Once there, you mustn’t forget that you need to be prepared for what comes after. You need to get down safely, and in a way that honors what you just saw.
When I grew up and learned about the storytelling stages, I remembered the long talks with him. I realized how much they were helping me with different forms of communication: client meetings, team kickoffs, public speaking events, training and whenever I had to sell a product or an idea to someone.
My grandfather was so skilled that storytelling was almost second nature to him, and it was so fluid and powerful that I’ve kept those moments engraved in my memory even today.
That’s the power of stories.
1. The Story Begins Before It Starts: Background
Successful storytelling includes providing background. Before you start, you must frame why you are there, the scope of your communication is, and what you want to accomplish. This should be quick: 1 or 2 minutes, or only a couple of paragraphs (so you don’t lose people’s attention).
Be relevant. Know your topic, why it matters, and who the audience is. A key thing you need to keep in mind is the goal: what are you there to fix, do or sell?
Recently, at a client’s, I had one of those moments where after only 2 minutes, I understood that I was barking up the wrong tree. Looking at their faces, I knew I was telling the wrong story to the right people. I remembered my grandfather and all the things I learned from him about stories and knew what I had to do.
I stopped and asked what they were expecting to see, listened to them and got back on track right away. Otherwise, there was no way I was going to get to the top of that mountain!
What I did was gather relevant information about my audience’s pain. You can do this, too. Talk to the right people to ensure you have the right content. You will have established a relevant background as a starting point.
2. Build Up the Interest: Rising Action
You are now prepared and equipped to start the climb. You feel confident that you know what needs to be said and done to get to the top, so let’s do it.
This is the most critical step. It will drive people to whatever revelation you are getting them ready for. So, you need to pick their brains with interesting and relevant information or facts that will move toward the breakthrough. Basically, you will need to structure your communication in a way that takes people from the background to what’s called “rising action.” I learned from my grandfather that pacing is key in this phase. Tell your story in a way that you don’t share the juicy details all at once. But don’t drive your audience into a stupor.
To help with the structure of my presentation for the clients who helped me realize I was on the wrong track, I researched similar fields or competitors to understand what would captivate my audience. This is a phase where you get to share what you have learned by talking to users, acquaintances — making the story feel personal. Engage with your audience throughout the entire process, like they are part of your story. But keep it within reason. People want to see real-life scenarios.
Remind them of their pain so it is active in their minds when you present your solution. You want them to remember you as the person who is there to solve their issue and not someone who is there to push your own agenda.
Wrap up by summarizing the challenges and what you found. But not before you leave them wanting more.
3. Go Big or Go Home: Climax
This is the Eureka moment. The one that will either break or make your communication.
All that climbing was meant to get you to this, the place where you disclose that big idea that will change their lives. All events come together in an intense peak of energy and it’s up to you to show it so your audience can feel it, too.
Remember my failed presentation? When I had to go back to the drawing board, do some research and come up with the “perfect” solution for that request? I do, and my team and I only had 2 days to regroup and have a fresh new impressive concept to show them.
So this time, I had no excuse and it had to be perfect.
Taking advantage of the momentum from the previous stage, I showed them the solution that would solve their pain in a very specific way. I showcased how each mockup would address their problems. This revealed that I had listened and that their concerns were my priority. When this was clear, the ice broke and they were actively engaged with the presentation.
I had to use my tone of voice here to keep things upbeat and exciting. This was another successful storytelling secret I also learned from my grandfather, who used not only his voice but also his body language to take us to this point.
4. Support the Narrative’s Solution: Falling Action
Feeling like superman on top of that mountain?
Great, but now look at the downward path. It has to be interesting so it is not a pain and a mood killer.
After you blow everyone’s minds with the big idea, you’ll need to provide the details of how you got to the breakthrough and how it all fits in the greater scheme of things. Basically, how the pain is cured.
Structure this stage by breaking it down into pieces, remembering to address the biggest pain you mentioned in the beginning, which will bring the story full circle.
So yes, I did get back to the presentation I mentioned earlier, after my research was done. I was clearer on the pain and so I learned how to bark up the right tree.
I followed the flow of the story: after the climax, I didn’t just drop my audience, I still held them with the narrative. I kept the energy going. After all, the show wasn’t over yet. So I went on and gave them the full ride, the whole nine yards of what they would be getting, step by step, so it would all make sense and relate back to them. After all, this was “their” solution, not mine.
5. Close the Deal: Resolution
Now that you explained the solution, it’s time for the grande finale.
This is it. The final big moment where you show your baby in all its glory. It’s similar to showing everyone the photos you took at the top of the mountain. They’re only great if your audience is (still) interested in what you have to show them. In addition, this is what everyone will recall from what you said throughout the whole story.
So, to end on a high note, sometimes you need to show your audience how things all work together and how they can get their money’s worth. In my case, this meant I had to demo the concept with all the bells and whistles to the audience.
So now that you know my grandfather’s secret you should be able to shine like a rock star in your next presentation, as you hold all the keys to successful storytelling, right?
Well, except for one more thing.
Above All Else, Be Yourself
Even if you don’t immediately shine, remember that, more than magic recipes or secret formulas, the key element is you. If you are genuine and let your personality shine, that is half the battle.
People relate to real people. No one likes when people are not being honest or faking it.
Although practice, study and observation can lead you to success, I would dare say that it was mostly my grandfather’s charismatic personality traits that made the difference. He observed the people around him, studied them, and practiced in the way that made use of his skills.
Giving you my example, I am usually a quiet guy until I am in the spotlight. Then I transform myself and enjoy the story like I am telling it for the first time, feeling excited and passionate about what I am showing and telling.
And that transformation didn’t come from nowhere. I observed my grandfather, studied his ways, and the people around me. And then, I went and won over my audience, too.
More Tips About Successful Storytelling
Want to know more about this? Watch my webinar, Selling a Brilliant Idea: How to Engage Like a Rock Star, on demand.
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100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, Susan Weinschenk