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July 2024
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Storytelling Tips From Contest Winners

How to effectively use this timeless method of getting your message across.

By Staff

Humans have told stories for thousands of years. Think of ancient cave drawings, Greek myths, fairy tales, and folklore. As long as people have been able to communicate, they have used stories.

Stories are a powerful way to make a connection with someone, which is why so many speakers use them as a way to engage their audience. Rather than simply describing something, stories draw listeners in, amplifying a lesson or life experience and making it relatable. Recall a time you were mesmerized by someone’s story—chances are you got lost in the tale and felt as if you were part of the experience being shared.

We reached out to four speech-contest winners who competed at the World Championship of Public Speaking® to get their insight and advice on storytelling.

Man speaking onstage with purple background

Jim Key, DTM

Princeton, Texas

2003 World Champion of Public Speaking


Storytelling can establish/strengthen a speaker’s connection with the audience, which is an important part of increasing the audience’s embrace of the speaker’s message.

Speakers have to be mindful of their audience’s thought process: how they will process the story as they hear it, and how clearly they will see the connection between the story and the points that the speaker is trying to make. The speaker may have familiarity with aspects of the story that the audience may not, so it is important that the story is framed in a way that will introduce the audience to those aspects. (Just because it is in your mind, doesn’t mean it is in their mind.)

It is important that the story is framed in a way that will introduce the audience to aspects of the story they are not familiar with.

—Jim Key, DTM

One of the delivery techniques I frequently use to incorporate a story into a presentation is what I refer to as the dissociative (or “step away”) storytelling technique. This is where the speaker tells part of the story, then pauses the story (and frequently moves away from the physical spot where they were telling it) to make some outside-the-story observations or to draw focus to a certain part of their message. This might be something very brief, or it can be something that takes a larger portion of time. Following this, the speaker resumes the story from the point at which they had previously paused it and continues.



Woman in black suit and blue shirt speaking onstage using hand gestures

Anita Fain Taylor, DTM

Pembroke Pines, Florida

3rd place, 2018 World Championship of Public Speaking


Storytelling adds impact to a speech, because through your choice of descriptive words and body language, you can appeal to the five senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. Storytelling effectively connects you with the audience.

It is through listening to speeches that I’ve gained a better appreciation of good storytelling. I belong to the Gelfand Good Morning Toastmasters club in Hollywood, Florida, and one of our members, Aditya Devendra, gave a speech that I evaluated titled, “The Land of Maple Leaf.” It was about two towns in Canada, and he used excellent descriptive words, along with appropriate body language. I felt as if I could see the snow-capped mountains, feel the air, hear the thunder of Niagara Falls, and smell the aroma and taste the pastries of his favorite restaurant. After his speech, I included Canada on my list of places to visit! That’s effective storytelling.

It is through listening to speeches that I've gained a better appreciation of good storytelling.

—Anita Fain Taylor, DTM

The most challenging part of storytelling is time constraints. One aspect of a story may be important to you, but does it add value to the overall speech or to the audience? It narrows down your decision-making process to this: “To cut, or not to cut, that is the question.”

Storytelling can be therapeutic for the speaker and the audience. Most recently, I shared a personal challenge I’m experiencing. Through self-reflection, I turned a negative situation into something positive simply by putting myself (and the audience) in someone else’s shoes. I wanted the audience to reflect on themselves and (hopefully) approach life differently. They were listening to my speech, and so was I, because I needed to hear it for myself, from myself to myself. During the speech, members laughed and cried. After the meeting, a few members told me how it moved them. Someone suggested I should enter it in the next speech contest (hint, hint).



Man holding microphone while speaking onstage with red and yellow flags in background

Mark Hunter, DTM

Helensvale, Queensland, Australia

2009 World Champion of Public Speaking


So many book titles include the word “naked.” This is often done to convey a sense of vulnerability or rawness by being exposed or void of pretense. The use of this word can also convey a willingness to expose an authentic self.

So being a naked storyteller is about laying bare our thoughts, our lives, our essence. Each time we tell a personal story, we can share our own unclothed lives to make what we have to say relevant to our audience, and hopefully more interesting.

A story delivered by the ego has all the attractiveness of flat champagne and sounds like the throbbing of untuned percussion instruments.

—Mark Hunter, DTM

However, as a warning, there are traps for the novice storyteller.

One public speaking sin that prevents a story from reaching an audience is ego. A story delivered by the ego has all the attractiveness of flat champagne and sounds like the throbbing of untuned percussion instruments.

The following points will help ensure your stories are not ego-driven:

  • Share your story to inspire, not motivate.
  • Avoid exaggerating your achievements and talents.
  • Refrain from sharing your story solely for personal catharsis.
  • Avoid sharing your stories as absolute truths.
  • Avoid sharing your stories as a means of pushing your success into the minds of your audience.
  • Never, ever accompany your story with a “selfie”! It’s a sure sign of your ego disconnecting you from your audience.

There are many opportunities to use naked storytelling to lead effectively. Keep in mind that when sharing stories as a leader, your task is not to tell your audience what to think, but rather to get them to think about the message in the story. In other words, tell your story to suggest rather than direct.

Some ideas of when storytelling can be most effective for a leader:

  • To inspire the organization to undergo a significant change.
  • To set a vision.
  • To teach important lessons.
  • To define culture and values.
  • To explain who you are and what you believe.

Telling stories is an art form, one that can be used by a leader to influence others by “unclothing” our lives.



Man in red suit jacket speaking onstage with hand in air

Mas Mahathir Mohamad

Seri Kembangan, Selangor, Malaysia

3rd Place, 2022 World Championship of Public Speaking


Stories have become more important than ever when it comes to leaving a lasting impression, connecting with your audience, and even inspiring action. Wouldn’t you agree? There’s just this magic of emotional connection when we listen to stories. The late Sam Balter, an Olympic-winning athlete and later a sportscaster, once said, “Stories can express the most complicated ideas in the most digestible ways.”

It’s no wonder that people strive to add stories to their presentations. The question is, how can you do the same?

Start by creating a story bank, which is essentially your diary of stories. It can be recording the simplest day-to-day routine or even random stories and events that happened to you. Deposit them into your bank so you can always refer to them when you need to use them.

Remember that facts tell, but stories sell!

—Mas Mahathir Mohamad

The best way to express your main idea and drive your points home is to incorporate stories that demonstrate, showcase, or illustrate how the main idea works. Remember that facts tell, but stories sell!

Powerful stories come from describing a struggle or talking about an aspiration. Think about it: If someone told you a story of how they got up, got dressed, got to work, came home, slept, and repeat … would you feel excited or hooked by the narrative? Probably not. But when a storyteller shares a story about something difficult they want to overcome or a goal that they want to achieve, it keeps us on our toes wanting to know what’s next.

My friends, share your stories! Incorporate them into your presentations and you will see how your presentations transform not only you, but the people who listen to you.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Toastmasters is a great place to fine-tune storytelling strategies. Practice in your club and check out the techniques outlined in “Connect With Storytelling,” a Level 3 elective project available in all 11 paths of the Pathways learning experience.



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