Storytelling setups

How to successfully introduce stories in speeches

Some storytelling setups, (the way you lead in, or introduce a story as part of a speech), are much more successful than others. They'll have your audience enthralled, hanging off your every word. The worst will have turned their ears off as fast as if you'd flicked a switch.

Laurel and Hardy graphic: Quick! Zone out! He's going to tell another irrelevant Laurel (left) and Hardy (right) - famous 1920s - 1940s comedy duo of American film.

If you've had the experience of a story failing to fire, and yet you know it was relevant within the context of your speech, maybe your story introductions need fine tuning.

The best storytelling setups sneak up on an audience capturing their attention before they've had an opportunity to zone out. They do it without fanfare. The drums do not beat loudly. The trumpets do not herald their arrival.

What's on this page? Quick links to get around fast.

Examples and discussion of what not to do and why

Examples of what to do - 3 sets of storytelling setups types:

  1. Imaginative openings 
  2. Personal openings  
  3. Rhetorical questions - silly and serious

From the what NOT to do department

Speakers who skillfully weave storytelling into their speeches do not say by way of introduction:

  • That reminds me of a really funny story...
  • Have you heard the one about ...?
  • I heard a great joke the other day. You'll really love it.
  • I don't know whether I should tell you this but ...

All of those are big red warning flags - "Hey!", they shout at the audience, "There's a  story coming up ... Get ready to laugh, to be amused."

The problem is that they give the audience a chance to pit themselves against you. Let me show you how.

In the first example, "That reminds me of a very funny story", you've created two hurdles to get over before you even get to telling your story.

The first is that you have said you are "telling a story". Your audience may interpret that as you are telling them something at best, fictional, and at worst, a lie.

The second hurdle is that you've told them it's "funny". Some people don't want to listen to "make believe" and many more don't want to be told something is funny before they experience the funniness for themselves. They want to make up their own minds.

"Have you heard the one about ..." as an opener sets your story up as a yarn or joke that is going the rounds. Someone told it to me and now I'm telling it to you. It's not personal experience, or even a new story, and therefore can be dismissed easily.

"I heard a great joke the other day ..." fits into the same slot as the starter above with the added loaded inference that the word "joke" carries. This is funny. You will laugh.

The last example, "I don't know whether I should tell you this ..." invites the response, "No, you shouldn't", in the mind of your audience before your story has begun.

So what storytelling setups do work?

Laurel and Hardy graphic button -

The ideal is an opener that doesn't appear to be one. It has the audience involved, listening attentively without pausing to consider whether they want to, or not.

Even though it precedes the actual story, it does not set up the same resistance as the examples above.

1. Invitations to imagine

Openers actively engaging the audience's imagination are effective. They invite partnership - togetherness - a shared journey.


  • I want you to visualize ...
  • Imagine ...
  • Let's step back in time ...
  • Come with me ...

2. Making it personal

Setting your story as part of your personal experience works well. These invite your audience to share an aspect of your life, to trust and to identify with you.

Consider these:

  • Just yesterday I was talking with a friend ...
  • On my way to work this morning ...
  • My wife thinks I ...
  • My phone rang. It was ...
  • I was in XXXX (insert name of local shop/restaurant etc) when...
  • Last summer ...

3. Rhetorical questions - silly & serious

If it fits your speech you could also experiment with storytelling setups based on rhetorical questions. As well as the straight or serious, try some obviously ridiculous ones to grab your audience's attention.

Examples of both are:

  • How many years have you been 40?
  • Is it true that diamonds are a girls best friend?
  • Do you remember when the sky was always blue and summer was endless?
  • Why is it that whenever you're late, you can never find a car park?
  • Why should we care about others?
  • Who decides what is fashionable and what is not?
  • How come it always rains when it's holiday time?
  • How come so many people are described as "average"?

When you're writing or rehearsing your speech try several setups before settling on the one you're definitely going to use. Listen for "rightness" of fit to your story, speech and audience.

Just as there are seamless ways of entering a story, so too there are slicker ways to exist. You do not have to announce, "By the way, that's the end of the story". Instead try a pause, a change of tone, a shift in body language or speaking rate. All of these signal the start of a new segment without saying anything.

For more about storytelling in speeches please visit ...

Storytelling tips button