How to tell a story to bring your presentation to life

what is you story question wood type printing blocks with a cup of coffee

On July 10, 2010, at the age of 60 Diana Nyad began open water training for a 60-hour, 103-mile (166 km) swim from Cuba to Florida, a task she had failed to finish thirty years previously.

She entered the water again at Havana on August 7, 2011 and after 29 hours in the water strong currents and winds that pushed her miles off course caused her to abandon her dream for the second time.

In October 2011, Diana tells TED Talks about the adventure and how she swam with some of the most dangerous jellyfish in the world.

She has a story to tell that most of us will probably never get even close to in our lifetimes, but it’s not just the story; it’s the way she tells it.

As any great presenter or speaker knows, you can have the most interesting and exciting content in the world but if you can’t bring it to life when you tell it then it’s ‘just another speech.’

Every great presentation is really a story and every great story has an opening that makes us want to listen to the rest of the story.

Here we have a record setting long distance swimmer telling us how a couple of years previously she had turned 60 and was “grappling with this existential angst of what little I had done with my life”, how she couldn’t forgive herself for “countless, countless hours I had lost in negative thought.”

Then she asked why:

“all the time I had spent beating myself up for losing my marriage and not stopping the sexual abuse when I was a kid and career moves and this and this and this. Just why, why didn’t I do it better? Why? Why? Why?”

Self-disclosure at its best

She not only shared the remedy but did so in such a captivating and enlivening way by animating and reliving every moment of the experience with her audience in thought, word, emotion and action.

Exactly how a great story should be told.

Your audience doesn’t just want to hear it, they want to re-live and experience it with you.

Our gestures, sounds, expressions, movement and every cell of our being needs to be congruent with the words, our story and our message.

When she told us about how fast she swam she showed us, when she told us about her singing in the dark in the middle of the night she didn’t just say it she sang too.

When she told us how she jumped into the water she even jumped.

Actions really do speak louder than words, especially when we are telling stories.

Then of course there is the descriptive detail without which it’s pretty hard to empathize with your speaker:

“And I was on fire — excruciating, excruciating pain. I don’t know if you can still see the red line here and up the arm. Evidently, a piece this big of tentacle has a hundred-thousand little barbs on it and each barb is not just stinging your skin, it’s sending a venom. The most venomous animal that lives in the ocean is the box jellyfish. And every one of those barbs is sending that venom into this central nervous system. So first I feel like boiling hot oil, I’ve been dipped in. And I’m yelling out, “Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Help me! Somebody help me!And the next thing is paralysis.”

How do you then close a powerful, impassioned and inspirational story?

You leave your audience with a brilliant quote and mighty message:

“To paraphrase the poet Mary Oliver, she says, “So what is it, what is it you’re doing, with this one wild and precious life of yours?”

That may have been the end of the Ted talk but it certainly wasn’t the end of the story.

On the morning of August 31, 2013, Diana began her fifth attempt to swim the 103 miles from Havana, Cuba to Florida and on September 2, 2013, she reached the beach in Key West, 53 hours after she started swimming. Here is what she had to say about it at her second TED Talk in December 2013.

If you thought the first story was amazing, I urge you to listen to this one too.

Once again, content aside, I’d be very surprised if you’re not gripped by every word she says.

As I noted earlier, most of us won’t be presenting the facts about how we managed to achieve what many of the greatest swimmers in the world have been trying to since 1950.

Unless your audience is already motivated to hear what you have to say, (note it’s the 5th December) and some management will be giving end-of-year bonuses, for example—you’ll need to convince them that your ideas are worth listening to.

If you haven’t been swimming with some of the world’s most dangerous fish that can be really hard to do.

Often we are called on to present:

A status or progress report

Briefings to help people do their job better

Technical reports

Sales reports

Product launches

Sales pitches



Motivational speeches

Goodwill speeches

And so the list goes on.

Whatever the topic or purpose, its worth being very mindful of the fact that people listen to, need, love and most importantly, remember stories.

Remember, your audience’s mind is already full.

They are being bombarded with information from a myriad of mindless sources and are so busy being busy with so much to think about already what could you possibly have to say that they will remember?

That’s why you have to tell them stories.

You have to interrupt their thought patterns, and connect with the deeper parts of their brain, where emotion and memory work together, the hippocampus and amygdala.

Whatever you are speaking about don’t just give them information, tell them something unusual that happened, something you experienced, something that made you think, feel or believe the way you do.

You may not have been stung by 9 jellyfish but you may know something that changed a customer’s life for the better or a past failure or recent success story that is captivating, memorable and contains practical business lessons.

Even when your business presentation is data rich, often telling a story can animate the raw data and help you to really connect with your audience.

Whatever you do though make sure its a meaningful, relevant story that has a lesson, moral, insight or objective. The surest way to get any audience to turn to their blackberry’s is to tell a pointless story.

I’d like to close with a slight twist on the quote Diana shared from the poet Mary Oliver in her TED Talk:

“So what is it, what is it you’re doing, with this one wild and precious PRESENTATION of yours?”

Tell them a story!

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