Nuggets of Storytelling Wisdom

In this post, I return to one of my favourite themes that run through this blog: the importance of storytelling. Past posts on the subject include this one and this one.

I recently came across a great TED Talk on storytelling by Andrew Stanton, a director and screenwriter at Pixar whose filmography includes the Toy Story series and Finding Nemo. In his talk—which opens with a ribald joke that didn’t offend me but did surprise me given that it was delivered at TED—Stanton speaks with noticeable emotion about how important storytelling is for human beings.

Weaving personal anecdotes with short clips from movies on which has worked, he makes a compelling case for the power of a good story. Although Stanton reads too much during the talk for my liking, his personality, his knowledge of and passion for the subject, and the goldmine of storytelling wisdom that he shares trump that shortcoming.

Below is Stanton’s TED Talk. I have gone through the video and pulled out from it what I consider to be the key takeaway points about storytelling. They follow the video.

The next time you are working a story into a speech or presentation, review these points. They will help you keep your stories on the right track.

  • Storytelling is knowing your punchline, your ending.
  • Storytelling is knowing that everything you’re saying, from your first sentence to your last, is leading to a single goal and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understanding of who we are as human beings.
  • We all love stories; we’re born for them.
  • We all want affirmation that our lives have meaning, and there is no stronger affirmation than when we connect through stories.
  • “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love, once you’ve heard their story.” (Quote that Mr. Rogers kept in his wallet.)
  • The greatest story commandment is to make the audience care—emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically.
  • A good story makes a promise that it will lead you somewhere worthwhile.
  • That promise, if told well, will propel you through the story to the end.
  • The audience wants to “work for its meal”. In other words, people are prepared to follow a compelling story without necessarily knowing where it will lead in order to get to the conclusion. They are willing to make the effort.
  • “The Unifying Theory of 2 + 2”: Don’t give the audience “4”; give them “2 + 2″and let them work out the answer themselves.
  • The elements you provide and the order in which you place them are crucial to whether you succeed in engaging the audience or not.
  • A good story is inevitable but not predictable.
  • All well-portayed characters have a goal that they want to achieve.
  • Change is fundamental in story; if things go static, stories die because life is not static.
  • “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” — William Archer, British Playwright.
  • You need to craft your story so that it builds anticipation.
  • Construct honest conflicts that create doubt about what the truth might be.
  • Storytelling has guidelines, not hard and fast rules.
  • A strong theme always runs through a well-told story.
  • The big question: Can you invoke wonder in your audience? Wonder is honest, innocent and can’t be artificially invoked.
  • The ability to instill wonder in others, to hold them still for a brief moment and make them surrender to wonder, is one of the greatest gifts one person can give to another.
  • The best stories infuse the audience with wonder.
  • When developing your stories, use what you know. It doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experience and expressing values you personally feel deep down to your core.

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
This entry was posted in Stories and Storytelling and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Nuggets of Storytelling Wisdom

  1. Pingback: The Psychology of Storytelling - Manner of SpeakingManner of Speaking

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  4. Conor Neill says:

    Great reminders. Thanks for the post. I love the joke! I was asking myself why he chose to go for such a risky one… but probably much more likely to go viral than a “safe” joke!!! 😉

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  6. Marawan Nassar says:

    Thanks John for this amazing post. Really helpful.

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  8. It always strikes me how many speakers (regardless of experience) don’t seem to understand the power of storytelling. Speeches are an extension of what we’ve essentially been doing since we grunted our first words into existence–telling stories. Somewhere between the cave and corporation however, we began to replace story with policy and clarity with complexity. Thanks for the tips, John.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Brett. I will remember the story/policy and clarity/complexity line. Good one. And yes, telling stories is the most natural thing in the world to do and yet so few do it.


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  10. Christina O'Shaughnessy says:

    Lots of highly valuable insights here. Thanks for posting, John!

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  12. Judy Lloyd says:


    A mutual Toastmaster friend, Joyce Feustel, District 26 in Denver, Colorado, shared the link to your comments about storytelling. I am a Spellbinder Storyteller as well as a Toastmaster, and I found your list of helpful hints for storytelling very beneficial for both my avocations. I’ve enjoyed reading your other posts as well. Thanks for your insight.

  13. Great opening! Thanks for putting this together. I´ll use it as guideline for my speeches in future, if I may. I love the Irish attitude to stories: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Love your blog, John.

  14. Gydle says:

    Great post, John. And all of these apply to written stories as well, fiction or non-fiction. I’ll listen to the talk and stick this list in my notes and refer to it as I’m writing. Particularly the wonder part. You’re so right there.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Mary. I saw the talk listed on a recent email update from TED and was immediately drawn to the storytelling aspect. As I listened to it, it became obvious to me that I needed to make a list of all the great stuff that Andrew Stanton was sharing.



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