10 steps to creating a really strong story

Guest post by Jim Harvey

It sounds like a presentation trainer’s cliche, but it’s not. In business presentations, the story is the thing. There’s a skill and a structure to creating interesting and compelling narratives. A craft started in the verbal tradition by prehistoric man, developed by the ancient Greeks, sharpened by the French, the Italians, Spanish and British over centuries, is now made into a global, multi billion dollar industry by the Americans. Telling stories with a message is what people have always sought to do. And those who are good at it have real value in the places they live and work.

Children are brought up on stories with a beginning, middle and end. Adults expect a point, a message, interesting characters, love, laughter, joy, tears and pity, and are disappointed if they don’t get them. Then we go to school, university, college and work and all of the joy seems to disappear. And we get talked at. Why? Because people don’t apply the simplest of the story-telling crafts to the most important parts of their life. Story structure? Ignore it at your peril or understand that when you’ve got a strong story, everything else will follow. How do we do it then? Here’s a few thoughts:

  1. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and ask ‘if I were them what would be interesting, useful and relevant to know and understand about this subject?’
  2. Brainstorm everything you could say on the subject onto a single piece of paper.
  3. Consult with key members of the audience about what it is they want to know, don’t want to know. Then decide what you absolutely have to tell them.
  4. Go back to your brainstorm and highlight those things that now will feature in your presentation and write your presentation objectives- In this presentation I will show X, Y and Z, and explain how we came to this decision. Then I will tell them exactly what I think they need to do and by when, to make the most of their investment.
  5. Build the storyboard- Act by act (See a classic 3-act structure) and keep on grinding until there’s a real rational, logical path through the presentation.
  6. Create a storyboard that tells the story with key scenes & content from each part.
  7. Create the visuals to support the storyboard.
  8. Add a high impact prologue (introduction) and epilogue (conclusion).
  9. Build your ‘script’ through rehearsal and repetition out loud rather than writing it out.
  10.  Write your script to the level you require (bullet points are best but in some very important or sensitive presentations you have to be scripted word for word).

Jim Harvey is the MD of Allcow Communications, a company which helps FTSE 100 companies to sell themselves, and their products better. Speech writer, Prezi trainer and designer, coach and consultant, Jim also finds time to be a proud father and husband.

Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds

mindfireBook review: Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds – Scott Berkun.

This eclectic series of short essays discusses ideas, questions and concepts that make you think. Sometimes he challenges conventional thinking (why being a follower can be good), and other times he just questions our actions (should you pray for your team to win), there is some advice. And the rest of the time it is just plain interesting.

If you are looking for new ideas, or to find a different take on old idea, you will enjoy this book. As a Toastmasters, there are some great ideas for your next speech.

Some of the ideas discussed are:

  • The cult of busy
  • Why you must lead or follow
  • The size of ideas
  • How to keep your mouth shut

Many of the essay’s are on Scott’s website, so you can check them out before you buy the book.

This book is kind of a “Chicken Soup for the Philosophical Soul”, and gives you interesting ideas to consider, without being too complex or deep (most of the stories are only a page or two, but the could be expanded into longer essays or books). If I had to criticise, I would like to see some more depth to some of the articles, I feel that sometimes he is just touching the tip of some very complex idea.

But then to contradict myself, it is refreshing to read a chapter that gets my brain engaged, but is only a few hundred words long.

The entire book is just short of 200 pages, but I don’t think that I would read it cover to cover. For me it is a book that you jump into from time to time, find an interesting chapter and read it. They are the kind of chapters that you can re-read a few times.
You can buy the print or Kindle version from Amazon.com for just under $11.

An unexpected gift

Last week, I ordered a couple of cases of wine from Getwine.co.za. When the wine arrived, Getwine alse gave me a free 100g slab of Lindt chocolate. They didn’t tell me about it when I ordered, they didn’t tell me in the delivery note, the driver didn’t mention it.

It was just tucked quietly away inside one of the boxes. That is also not the first time they have done this.

  • How do you give unexpected gifts to your customers?
  • How do you keep your customers loyal?
  • What do you do to get your customers to tell everybody about your great service?

Truth or dare

I am often asked for my views on keeping the stories in a speech completely accurate as to what happened, as opposed to embellishing the story to make a great speech. My response is that while you need to be true to your stories, you must also be true to your message. Make sure that your audience remembers your message.

But it can be a fine line between embellishing a story to make it a great story, and telling an outright lie.

Darren la Croux has written a great blog post on this subject, explaining that your stories should at least be “Based on a True Story”. He says,

Have you ever noticed that Hollywood blockbusters always start off, “based on a true story?” They never start, “this is exactly how it happened.” If they told it exactly how it happened, we’d be bored!

Are you perfectly accurate when you tell your stories? The truth is important, yes. I’m not saying to lie or make things up. I just want your stories to be so memorable that people walk away clearly understanding your message.

If you are unsure how to approach this issue in your speeches, read his post; he gives a very clear an concise answer.

Be afraid of our customers

Heard in a presentation by (the other) Michael Jackson

“Yes, you should wake up every morning terrified with your sheets drenched in sweat, but not because you’re afraid of our competitors. Be afraid of our customers, because those are the folks who have the money. Our competitors are never going to send us money.”

Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon.com
Remember who could be sending you money, and do everything to gain their trust, respect and business.

Workshop: The Joy and Call of Stories

Here is a workshop that may interest you. It is being run by two very good friends of mine, and it promises to be a first-class event.

Find the Storyteller inside

Telling stories as a lure to the future is an ancient strategy of sages, philosophers and great religious leaders. – Diarmuid O’Murchu

This workshop will show you how to ritualise and energize your life though engaging with stories – those of your own and of others. Climb inside stories and tell them from the inside. Listen to them, Shape them. Taste them on your tongue. Reconnect to creativity, memory and imagination. This workshop experience will energize you. You will get a clearer understanding of how we construct our lives as fiction and how this can release us into a more abundant life. You’ll emerge with stories in your heart and on your lips.

Storyshop Programme

Week 1: The Why of Stories

The power of storytelling to send us travelling and bring us home.

Week 2: Archetypal Stories

Myths and Fairy tales – the story underneath the story.

Shapes, patterns and rituals. Engaging symbols.

Week 3: Sourcing Stories through observation

Listen with the ear in your chest. (Rumi)

Inner and outer looking. Our looking ripens things. (Rilke)

Week 4: Structure your own Stories

Story stones to step on: the symmetry of a tale. Beginnings and endings.

Week 5: Practical: telling Stories

How to tell a story: how to breathe, climb inside it; ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t tell it’.

Make up stories, finding your voice, your silences.

Fabric and fabrication.

Week 6: The Circle and the Fire – A celebration of Story telling

Participants tell and receive stories.

The Joy and Call of Stories Will:

  • explain the power of storytelling
  • give you an understanding of how stories work
  • give you practical tools to work with in the telling of stories
  • help you develop the ability to tell a good story
  • ignite your creativity and imagination


Dorian Haarhoff is a storyteller, writer, mentor and a former Professor of Literature. He is passionate about developing innate creativity and imagination. He believes that stories can heal, build communities and create new worlds.

Kirsten Pearson is a Dialogue facilitator, published poet and the volunteer Project Lead for the Movement for Sharing Life Stories. She promotes story telling as a way to support change, create new realities and transform the potential of our future.

Who will benefit from attending:

Writers, storytellers, readers, travelers, lovers of words, images, silences…therapists, artists, spiritual seekers, coaches, teachers, magicians, tricksters, ecologists…anyone who wants to raise their story IQ.


  • Saturday, 26 September 09: 14:00 – 17:00
  • Saturday, 03 October 09: 14:00 – 17:00
  • Saturday, 10 October 09: 14:00 – 17:00
  • Saturday, 17 October 09: 14:00 – 17:00
  • Saturday, 24 October 09: 14:00 – 17:00
  • Saturday, 31 October: 14:00 – 17:00


Novalis Ubuntu Institute – 39 Rosmead Avenue, Wynberg (a white domed building between Wetton and Ottery Road)


R900.00 (or R150 per week)

Should you wish to pay in instalments of R150 per week, that option is available.

To register

To book, contact Kirsten Pearson on 021 461 3145 or email: [email protected]

Confusing your audience in stories

Last night I watched a speaker say something like this: “Do you remember the scene where they tore the page from the textbook in Dead Poet’s Society? ”. He then proceeded to relate the scene in the movie to his speech.

While using a quote, idea or story from a movie to help make a point is a useful and powerful technique, you need to be a little careful not to make one of these two assumption:

  • We had all seen the movie
  • We all remembered the scene/quote.

Those of us who had seen the movie will try to remember exactly what happened, and the rest of us have no idea what the speaker is talking about. This confused the audience and they loose the connection with the speaker.

Here are three suggestions.

  1. Pick an example that most of your audience can relate to.
  2. Give a brief summary of the scene; just enough to help the audience understand why it emphasises your point
  3. Provide context for people that may not be familiar with the example, so that they can relate to the story.

This doesn’t just apply to scene’s from a movie, it could be a quote from a famous speech, or even an important event. For example if I was giving a speech on national unity, I could say something like this

“Do you remember when Nelson Mandela walked onto the rugby field in 1995 after South Africa won the world cup final?”

The South African’s in the audience will remember the moment, but not many others will. Here is an alternative:

“It was 1995, and South Africa having just come out of years of racial segregation, was hosting the Rugby World Cup competition. Due to anti-apartheid sporting boycotts, this was the first year that South Africa was allowed to enter, and they beat New Zealand in the finals to take the trophy. Nelson Mandela walked onto the field wearing a springbok rugby jersey, and presented the trophy to the captain Francois Pineaar, and a nation cheered.”

Which example do you prefer?

Mandela, Rugby World Cup Final, 1995
Mandela, Rugby World Cup Final, 1995

Even if I gave that story to an audience that does not follow rugby, they can probably relate it to a similar story that is relevant to sporting matches that they follow.

Keep your examples powerful, relevant and simple to capture your audiences, build powerful connections and leave memorable messages.

Do you leave memorable messages – Darren LaCroix on originality

Do you give your own memorable messages, or do you sound just like everybody else? Here is an interesting lesson from Darren LaCroix, the 2001 world champ of speaking. He tells an interesting story:

Never use someone else’s story. This is a small industry… it won’t take long for the ‘owner’ to find out. After doing my “Ouch!” speech at NSA a few years ago, it was copied by somebody overseas just a couple of months later. One of my mentors happened to be in the audience, and called the speaker on it. At first, he denied it. But later, he admitted it. As speakers, we can be inspired by others — but it’s important that we be original in our own messages, techniques, and stories.

As Darren would say “Ouch!”

You can read the entire article on Darren’s website.

Interview with Dorian Haarhoff

I recently reviewed the book “The Halo and the Noose“, by Dorian Haarhoff and Graham Williams. Here is an interview with Dorian in which we discuss the book, storytelling and stories in business.

[podcast]https://www.craigstrachan.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/audio/Dorian Haarhof.MP3[/podcast]

If the book sounds interesting, you can order it here.

Do you tell your own stories?

This is something that I have heard so many speakers talk about, but I have only recently found out how powerful it really is.

I recently completed the Toastmasters humourously speaking advanced manual. This manual requires you to use humorous stories and jokes in your speeches. Almost every time, I got a better response from using my own stories, than I found by using a joke that I found, or from somebody else?s stories (not just for humour, but for making a point in general).

A story is a bit like a new word, once you first hear it, everybody seems to be using it (think the starfish on the beach story). Even though it may be a great story, it gets boring very quickly.

There are several reasons for this:

Your own stories or jokes

  • Have a personal meaning to you
  • Are easy to remember
  • Are original
  • Have a message that you can convey in a unique manner
  • Keep the audiences interest

Other people?s stories or jokes

  • Have been heard before (possibly many times)
  • Are not original
  • Tell somebody else?s message
  • Lose the audience

One of the best ways to use your own stories is to keep a story file. Whenever anything interesting happens, or something strikes you as interesting, make a note of it in your story file. It can be as simple as a word document. Here is an example (that did happen to me).


  • Recently, I was cycling up a steep hill (next to the Cape Point Nature Reserve)
  • I got tired and was about to stop when I saw a pack of baboons
  • I raced up the hill faster than I have ever done before


  • You can do anything with the right motivation
  • No matter how tired you are, you always can always find that extra energy

Now, when you are looking for a story to illustrate a point, it is a simple case to look through your story file. A story file is also a great place to look for ideas when you are getting stuck on a speech.

I also use my digital recorder to jot down ideas and stories when I think of them, and then add them to my story file later.