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Engaged Audience

Keep Your Audience Engaged and Forgetting About Their Smartphones When Listening to Your Speech 

By Jackie Graybill, Toastmasters International 

As human beings we are drawn to stories. It’s as if they are part of our DNA.

This can be seen in TED Talks where the most popular talks contain powerful stories. The most watched TED talk of all time (with over 71 million views) is by Sir Ken Robinson. In it he tells the story of choreographer Gillian Lynne to illustrate his point that schools kill creativity in youngsters, the centrepiece of his talk. You can view it here:

Arresting narratives bring our attention to issues in a way that bald or stringent statistics fail to do. Charities have discovered that, by focusing on the narrative of one starving child instead of the billions around the world, response rates become much higher. All because of the power of story.

Can story be used in boardroom speeches, school related speeches as well as weddings and other contexts? Absolutely. And, I would argue, their inclusion in all speaking contexts is vital! If you want to engage your audience instead of putting them to sleep, if you’d like to keep their interest so much so that they forget about their smartphones, if you crave the experience of having them lean forward in their seats, hanging on your every word, story is the vehicle to drive your speech there, and to keep your audience experiencing an unforgettable ride.

Are all stories created equal though? Unfortunately, not. Even a story with great potential can be dragged out and made boring. You may have been on the receiving end of such a story and found yourself wanting to escape.

Let’s look at how you can spice up your storytelling and build up your skills in this area.

  1. Intrigue with mystery

Beginning with a mystery and peppering more mysteries throughout your story creates intrigue, as your listeners want to know what happens and begin guessing at the answer in their own minds. A great start is with something like, “I have a confession to make.” Try working on your mystery skills with the kids in your life. They will enjoy it and you’ll be playing your way to better speaking and storytelling skills in the process.

  1. Create a loop, or multiple loops

This is the technique of leaving a mystery unsolved before you introduce another one. You can even leave a loop open until the end and give your audience the satisfaction of solving the mystery at the end. Closure is a beautiful thing, so don’t forget to eventually close the loop.

  1. Shorter is sexier: leave them wanting more

Do your best to cut out any non-pertinent details that don’t set up your story or drive the action forward. If you feel like you might be adding too much detail to a specific aspect of your story, you probably are.

  1. Analogy/Metaphor

Using analogies, metaphors, similes, and other literary tools can bring interest and humour to your storytelling. For humorous examples, look at the work of comedian Jim Gaffigan, especially the time a bear looked at him and, as he put it, “I was sunburned so I probably looked like a giant land salmon.”

Additionally, check out the book, ‘Metaphors Be With You’, by Dr. Mardy Grothe, for wonderful examples to incorporate into your stories.

  1. Impersonation

Adding the inner voices of characters is a wonderful way to bring your story to life. And you are not required to stick to living characters. As an example, during a recent speech on resilience, I embodied a bowl in a short story that illustrated the Japanese concept of kintsugi. That story was my audience’s favourite part of the speech, and the most memorable for everyone, including me.  

  1. Using your voice

Actors and comedians don’t have to be the only ones who have fun with accents, voices, and impersonations. You can experiment with dialects, vocal range differences of high or low, raspy, or clear, different ages, louder or softer voices, whispers, slower drawls… the only limit is your own creativity!

Remember also to invoke the power of the pause. It will give your audience time to absorb what you have said. Pauses can also be used to emphasise information, phrases or words in a powerful way

  1. The power of dialogue

Instead of just telling us what your characters have said, become those characters as they have a dialogue with each other. You can utilise the spatial physicality of characters as they talk with each other by shifting slightly where you stand and where you are looking. 

  1. Use PIXAR’s formula

The PIXAR story formula, made popular by the elements contained in PIXAR films, is as follows: 

Once upon a time

Every day

But one day

Because of that

Because of that (add additional “because of that”s as necessary)

Until finally

Ever since then

Practice your stories according to these elements, and you might be surprised to find out how many effective stories follow this formula.

  1. Practice stories with the children 

If you have children in your life, you’re aware that they adore being told stories. This is the perfect atmosphere to test various storytelling techniques as you build your skills, as you likely won’t feel judged by your small listeners and will be less inhibited. As long as the storytelling is age appropriate, this will be a win-win for everyone involved in the process.

  1. Engage all the senses

Our five senses have a powerful effect on our human experiences and when any of them are evoked, this can trigger audience members in powerful ways. To practice this skill, take someone on a sensory walk. This could be a description of a delicious recipe you made, a nature walk, or anything that includes multiple of the five senses. Just be careful with this powerful story element, as there are some things you may not want to bring up with your listeners (insert dog poop and other cringeworthy sensorial triggers). 

  1. Put together a story bank and rehearse them

Whenever you are engaged in a conversation and find yourself recalling and sharing a story, add it to your storybank list. This will prove to be a treasure trove when you are preparing for a speech and need to enliven a particular point. Just visit your story bank (I keep mine in my notes app on my phone) and match a point with a story that illustrates it. Practice telling these stories in everyday conversation and every time you tell it, that story’s impact will become stronger as you adjust the elements in it for maximum impact. 

  1. Practice with everyone in your life

“What happened today day?” Can turn into, “You’ll be amazed at what happened today!” You’ll find yourself telling an engaging story to your intrigued listener.

Storytelling is enjoyable as well as useful. I hope you’ll be able to “play your way to success” with, as my speaking coach, Toastmaster Chris Nielson puts it.  Please use some of the tips that I have shared here and spice up your next speech or presentation with some memorable stories.


Jackie Graybill is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit