“Man, that person can tell a story…” Five traits to being a great storyteller

I grew up in the Irish tradition of storytelling in the Ottawa Valley.  My father the horse dealer could tell a great story.  People would drive into our farmyard not thinking they were coming to buy a horse, and drive out with one loaded in their truck – all because of the great story my Dad could tell them about how that particular horse would change their lives for the better!


For me, it was early exposure to not only a great storyteller, but a great strategic storyteller.  Knowing “what story to tell when” in business is key.  But it is also important to develop skills as a storyteller, to hone your ability to tell a story to achieve the impact that you are seeking – whether to persuade, influence or lead others.


You may think that you are not a wonderful orator, that you are not a Martin Luther King or a Mahatma Ghandi, or even Canada’s own Olympic storyteller John Furlong. Great strategic storytellers have certain traits in common – traits that may not be ones you think you were born with, but they are ones that you can nurture and grow.  Here are the top five most powerful traits.  Great storytellers…

  1. Listen, engage and interact with their audience– your audience does not want to be preached to.  A storyteller who starts out listening, engaging and interacting with the audience has a much better chance of keeping folks with them and getting the desired outcome.  Is there a question you can ask near the beginning?  If the group is small enough, can you go around the room and ask for people’s experience on the topic?  Can you pause at mid point and see how your story is landing?  And of course is there a close that not only wraps up the story with a nice neat bow, but also invites or even challenges the audience to respond.


  1. Empower others – I used to tell stories to groups of fundraisers about raising sponsorship revenue for the Olympics, until I realized that these stories did not in any way empower those groups.  Most fundraisers do not have the benefit of something like the Olympic brand and its ability to generate millions of dollars – rather they are working on realistic scales of multiples of a thousand and their own excellent stories of the work their organizations do.  By changing the stories I told to ones that were more relevant to their experiences, I was actually able to empower those audiences to take action and achieve their own successes.


  1. Are generous in spirit – US President Harry S Truman (and a few others) are credited with saying: “There is no limit to what you can accomplish as long as you don’t care who gets the credit.”  Generosity of spirit can carry you a long way to being perceived as a great storyteller: that illusive mix of being confident, yet humble; proud of achievements and yet willing to easily credit others for them.  Just don’t take it too far, or your audience will be conjuring up that famous Shakespearean quote: “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”!


  1. Are expressive, animated, highly descriptive– if you happen to have a monotone way of speaking, work at bringing in some varying tones, adding some colour and life to how you speak.  One of the best ways to test this is to record yourself and play it back (yikes!), or even practice in front of a mirror.  Often we are horrified at how little we smile, how rapidly we speak and how little personality we bring into telling a story.  This is a time to relax, let your expressive self shine through and don’t hesitate to add more description.


  1. Don’t hide behind power point!– Power Point, and the many other similar programs, are indeed wonderful tools.  But too many of us hide behind those treasured slides that we slaved to create – often with WAY TOO MUCH information on them, unreadable and, frankly, quite boring.  A good discipline: see how you can tell your story WITHOUT power point and then decide if you really need one or how the tool can best serve you.

When it comes to storytelling – particularly strategic storytelling – practice does indeed make perfect!  I challenge you to think about what stories you have in your library, how you can dust them off and dress them up to being a story that works in your business.  But most of all, turn on that recording device and capture your story and then play it back to a critical audience of you, plus maybe a trusted loved one.


Not a great storyteller yet?  Then check out our Executive Storytelling workshop in Vancouver on April 30 – www.execstorytelling.com .  We had a fabulous sold-out workshop in Calgary on March 10 – sign up for Vancouver soon!

Happy Spring!