Are you making these rookie storytelling mistakes?

193: Six Rookie Storytelling Mistakes

When I first started coaching professionally, I stepped into an organization that was story-focused. And in the 10 years that I worked there, coaching 20+ speakers each year (all of whom gave somewhere between 2-7 talks each! – which s a LOT of talks!), I learned so much about how to make a story engaging… how to write a story so that it translates across a broad spectrum of audience… how to take fuzzy story and make it sticky – to find what matters, up the ante, EDIT well… 

And by the time I walked out those doors as a full-time coach, I had cut my teeth really well on coaching story. How to write and tell one so that it MOVES your audience.

So, when I got asked this question several times over the last few weeks:

“What’s one of the biggest storytelling mistakes speakers make?”


I couldn’t help but think about some of the big rookies mistakes that speakers make when they’re working on their stories. 

So here they are: The 6 biggest rookie storytelling mistakes… so you won’t make them, too!

Mistake #1: Talking ABOUT the story (instead of telling the story)

Most people when asked to tell a story, actually end up telling us ABOUT something, rather than just bringing us into a moment. It seems like a no-duh shift, but I can’t tell you how often I’m shifting people away from summarizing a moment that happened instead of BRINGING ME INTO THE MOMENT, AS IF IT’S HAPPENING NOW.

Storytelling isn’t a summary of what happened. … or an anecdote…. 

Storytelling is a specific moment in time.

“Storytelling isn’t talking about something; it IS something.”

Mistake #2: The preamble

Don’t tell us you’re going to tell us a story…

I’d like to share a story with you about… 
I want to start with a story… 

Just tell us the story.

It’s more engaging. Interesting. Artistic, even? 

Pull us in. 

Just start. 

Mistake #3: Not making it specific enough.

There’s a danger of getting too specific in terms of the arc of the narrative… 

But when you home in on a MOMENT, THAT’s when you want to get VERY specific, and think about keeping it visual. 

As audience members, we need to SEE it in our heads if you want us to remember it.

When you can add some elements that spark the imagination of the audience – 

  • what it smelled like
  • what you saw
  • what they were wearing, the specific look on their face

It’s like it pauses it in a moment of time, and snaps a PICTURE. 

When you can make that imaginative connection, your audience is much more likely to remember it. 

Mistake #4: Making it too specific

When we home into the moment we are bringing to life, we want to get specific. But the general arc and flow of a story need to be as simple as possible. Too many characters, too many places, we end up losing the point (and then losing the audience).  

Editing is your friend. 

My friend Rita Boersma – an incredibly talented speaker, improvisor, video editor ETC ETC ETC and I did a workshop once about “story truth”…. in other words, where’s the ethical line as you edit to help make your point and make CLEAR what you’re trying to say. It’s a really powerful and important idea, not just because speakers are leaders and leaders are speakers so what we say really matters… but because we are shaping the future. There’s a lot of grey in here, and it’s worth talking about

Mistake #5: Not understanding the power of present/past tense

When people hear a story – if it’s visual – the brain begins to imagine it for itself… 

But one of the best ways to make it EMOTIVE is to make it FEEL present tense. Make it feel like it is happening again… the words of the speaker meld with the brains of the audience – and it actually IS like it’s happening again. The powerful Mirror Neuron ignites, and EMPATHY hits.

It’s powerful powerful stuff.

And many speakers miss out on the simplest way to shift it into feeling NOW, versus happening in some distant past… and that is playing with past and present tenses.

When a “character” speaks… you simply shift into present tense.

Try it – it will level-up the emotive power, I promise. 

#6: Not USING your story to connect to a larger idea and audience

This is one of the biggest mistakes… 

We as leaders don’t just tell stories to entertain ourselves. (I mean, sometimes we do – and those are beautiful and lovely!) But in this context – as leaders and speakers – we tell stories to bring an idea to life. To make a point. To underline the impact of something. To create empathy, connection, action… 

And our JOB as speakers isn’t just to craft a beautiful story, it’s to USE that story to connect to something larger, that pulls us ALL in. Too many speakers walk away from their point. They are afraid that they are being pedantic, too directive, too challenging… 

Josh Ship – a speaker I’ve worked with and who is coming on the show in a few weeks talks about this framework that I think is really powerful for finding that balance… he calls it ME + WE + YOU. (You can read more about it here – and see his awesome TEDx talk!)

“It’s our job as speakers and leaders to do something with our stories. ”

And I know that’s why you’re here. 

You have an idea… you have a mission that you are driven by… want to make the most of these moments… 

And I’m here to help you step into those moments with more confidence and clarity! And to avoid these rookie storytelling mistakes!

Rookie Storytelling Mistakes:

#1 – Talking ABOUT the story instead of Telling the Story

#2 – Using a preamble

#3 – Not Making it Specific

#4 – Making it Too Specific

#5 – Not understanding the power of the Present-Past Tense

#6 – Not using your story to connect to a larger idea and audience

Join the Course!

If you want to dig deeper into how to bring your story to life on stage, get on the waitlist for my upcoming SPEAKING STORY course! I’d love to have you join in on the fun. <3

Show Highlights

  • The best way to start a story (and the worst way!)
  • Finding the balance between what is too specific – and what isn’t specific enough
  • We get all meta on what a story is… and isn’t.
  • Essential reminders for us as speakers and leaders.

Resources and links:

The Carmen Simon Episode (Episode #187)

Josh Shipp’s website and blog post

Rita Boersma’s Episode (Episode #001!)

Join the Course!

If you want to dig deeper into how to bring your story to life on stage, get on the waitlist for my upcoming SPEAKING STORY course! I’d love to have you join in on the fun. <3