Kevin Spacey's Three Key Elements to a Compelling Story

“The story is everything, which means that it’s our job to tell better stories.” Kevin Spacey

In 2014, actor Kevin Spacey delivered the final keynote address to over 2,500 participants at the Content Marketing World Conference in Cleveland. The theme of Spacey’s talk was storytelling. Drawing heavily on his experience in the performing arts, but also on stories from business, marketing and social media, he delivered a speech that was well received.

Kevin Spacey

Below are some highlights from Spacey’s talk. If you are interested, the entire talk (approximately 35 minutes) can be seen here.

According to Spacey, there are three elements which are crucial to every good story.


Conflict creates tension, and tension keeps people engaged with your story. Without it, there is no driving force. The best stories are filled with characters who take risks or court drama or push the envelope. The decisions that those characters make drive the story and keep us glued to our seats.

Of course, it is relatively easy to create conflict in a fictional movie or novel. But conflict also exists in the real world. Businesses, organizations and people deal with it every day. And conflict is often the catalyst for change, or at least the desire to change something.

I have listened to many pitches from entrepreneurs over the years. The best ones always capitalize on the conflict that drove them to develop their ideas and build their businesses. There was a problem or need in the market; they struggled to solve that problem; they eventually succeeded; and now they have a product or service that people will buy. That narrative follows the classic arc of a good story: conflict; struggle; resolution; lesson.

In his talk, Spacey noted that many companies tap into our desire to be better versions of our unfulfilled selves. They tap into the conflict between who we are and who we want to be. Stories are far more interesting when they go against the settled order of things.


For a story to make an impact, says Spacey, it must ring true. As I always tell my clients, that’s why personal stories are so powerful. We know them. We’ve lived them. They are our stories. Does it mean that we can never tell stories about others? Of course not. But the story has to touch us in some way if it is to touch our audiences.

As Spacey says, in our “increasingly shiny world of spin”, it is essential to keep in mind what makes something feel authentic to an audience. Don’t try to be something you aren’t. Stay true to your brand and voice, and audiences will respond with enthusiasm and passion.


The most important element of any story is the audience. “As storytellers,” Kevin Spacey remarks, “we are nothing without our audiences and so we must constantly strive to build our audiences, develop their loyalty and give them content worth sharing.”

Audiences are dying for stories; all we have to do is provide them. Spacey notes that these days, stories come in all shapes and sizes—from six second Vines to a television series—but the length and device are irrelevant. The audience doesn’t care about the platform; they care about the content.


Stories are important for almost any communication situation. Spacey’s advice to those in business or marketing?

I think it starts with what story do you want to tell. And if you start with what story you want to tell, everything else will follow. … Begin very simply and then start to build the blocks toward telling that story. What’s the best and most efficient and most compelling way that I can tell that story?

Photo courtesy of Maryland GovPics

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  1. Great article! Telling a good story is quite hard, but this really gives a good introduction to what’s important.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International