Event Storytelling

How to be a compelling storyteller at in-person and virtual events

A compelling narrative can help your event shine. Here are four tips to get your story started.
Tahseen Kazi
May 25, 2022

Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is one of the most famous speeches in history. People around the world still reference his inspiring words even today.

Want to capture even a fraction of King’s charisma and magnetism the next time you speak at an event? Let's deconstruct why his words (and the words of other great storytellers) have such a lasting impact on people.

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Event storytelling done right: Four tips from master storytellers

Make your audience the hero 

In her Ted Talk “The secret structure of great talks,” communication expert and master storyteller, Nancy Duarte says:

“So in reality, the presenter isn't the hero, the audience is the hero of our idea.”

This means that every time you tell a story, remember - you're Dumbledore, not Harry Potter. You’re the one helping the hero in your story (your audience) solve a pressing problem. You’re the one who is helping them believe in themselves and what they can achieve. You’re the one leading them towards success. 

All great stories follow this premise. Here’s an example from one of the most viewed TED talks, “Your body language may shape who you are” by social psychologist Amy Cuddy. 

“How many of you are sort of making yourselves smaller? Maybe you're hunching, crossing your legs, maybe wrapping your ankles. Sometimes we hold onto our arms like this. Sometimes we spread out. I see you. So I want you to pay attention to what you're doing right now. We're going to come back to that in a few minutes, and I'm hoping that if you learn to tweak this a little bit, it could significantly change the way your life unfolds.”

Cuddy puts the spotlight on her audience right from the start. She encourages them to view themselves as heroes. She shows them how to use their body language to affect others' perceptions of them. 

Bottom line: your audience is your hero - always!

Looking for a great example of masterful event storytelling? Look no further than Mindy Kaling's interview during MIX 2022! @ 1:22:25) Happy storytelling!

Establish ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’

The second rule of great storytelling is an idea put forth by Nancy Duarte. She discovered that effective presentations take audiences on an aspirational journey of “what is” and “what could be.”

Creating Moments of Impact: Using Sparklines for Strategic Conversations -  Duarte

All you need to do is paint a picture of the current situation the audience is in. Then compare it with what it could be if they did what you're asking them to do. But there’s a catch.

Make sure the gap between their current state and the possible future state is as large as possible. This will create a stark contrast and help you make a strong impression on your audience.

A famous example of creating this gap is Obama's “Yes we can” speech where he says, 

“We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.”

The contrast Obama creates in his speech is effective as he carefully switches between the pessimistic opinions of naysayers versus the reality of the trials that past generations of Americans have overcome.

Adjust event storytelling for virtual and in-person mediums

To understand how you need to adjust your event storytelling techniques, you first have to understand what makes in-person and virtual events different.

Here are the key differences:

  1. The medium itself. In person, you can use body language and gestures to help tell your story. You can also draw energy from the room and see the audience's reaction from verbal and nonverbal cues. At virtual events, you cannot. 
  2. Audiences have a lot of distractions in virtual environments. They can open new tabs, start doing their own work, check their phones, and talk to people around them. You're competing for people's attention.
  3. Audiences engage in different ways at in-person and virtual events. In person, they can talk to people seated near them or ask questions during presentations. Virtual events need you to create strategic opportunities for engagement.

To that end, here are some things you can do to minimize distractions and keep your audiences engaged

Have a clear takeaway

Every good story needs a good ending. Something that leaves you thinking or inspired long after it’s over. Be sure your story does that. Start planning your story with a clear outcome in mind. 

At MIX 2022, Chris Lee, Managing Director at Informa Markets said, “A business story should always have a clear outcome. It should provide a thought-provoking message or an actionable insight that really compels the audience to connect with your content or product.”

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Be authentic 

Chris further elaborated on the need for being authentic in storytelling saying, “Customers don't like wool being pulled over their eyes and they'll figure you out pretty quickly in those scenarios. So I would really overstate that your story doesn't need to have that earth-shattering history that some people have. Please don’t try to create that when you’re telling a story because then you’ll lose people. Instead, keep it genuine.” 

Sanjib Kalita, Ashley Henson, and Chris Lee at MIX 2022
Sanjib Kalita, Ashley Henson, and Chris Lee at MIX 2022

Be concise 

At MIX 2022, Ashley Henson, Vice President of Communications at Dow Jones & Company recommended being concise with event storytelling. 

“This is actually what I think is the most important because it's so easy to get lost in the additional detail when you're telling a story. But sometimes as a listener that can be distracting.”

She continues, “So one thing I always tell people is to be absolutely ruthless by cutting things out and practicing so that you’re sure that you're getting the cleanest version of your story to connect with your audience in the most emotional way.”

Connect with your audience

People appreciate it when you make an effort to speak their language. So find ways to personalize the story to your audience. 

When looking for ways to connect with your audience, Ashley suggests asking yourself these questions - How can I personalize the story? How can I evoke emotions through the story? How can I make the story compelling for people? How can I make the story relatable?

Blow your own mind 

storyteller Julian Shapiro

Marketer, investor, and storyteller Julian Shapiro wanted to create his own podcast. Driven by this desire he began his search for the secret of storytelling.

After a year of research, interviews, theories and failures Julian finally uncovered the concept of “Blow your own mind.” He says, “‍Blowing your own mind entails being excited at moments of excitement, being shocked at moments of shock, and being wowed at moments of wonder. Listeners feed off this like sugar. This, it turns out, is far more important than vocal rhythm or any other delivery trick.”

What happens here is that you relive the story in real-time and your emotions show on your face. This energy becomes immediately contagious, and the audience feeds off it. So when you tell a story, focus on how you feel because your audience will feel the same way.

In conclusion

 So here’s a quick recap on how you can nail event storytelling every time:

  1. Establish your audience as a hero by giving them a way of doing things better. 
  2. Know how to adjust your delivery based on setting– in-person or virtual events. 
  3. Relive every experience you share with your audience, as you share it.

Missed Mastering Immersive Experiences 2022 - a multi-city, hybrid conference for event professionals just like you? The recording is available for as many replays as you want!
Tahseen Kazi

Tahseen is a marketer by profession, a storyteller at heart, and a tech geek by education. She has previously worked as a software developer and client partner. However, creating meaningful content is what she likes best. When she's not writing, she's reading. She's also a self-designated casting director - in her head, she casts people for characters in imaginary movies and tv series.

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