April 8, 2022 / Esther Choy

Woman speaking

What is about some stories that keep audiences riveted?

Authentic persuasion requires leaders to have relevant and compelling stories on hand. Stories not only create stronger bonds with your audience, they also make information more memorable.

To create stories quickly, stories should follow a basic story structure. At Leadership Story Lab, we call it the “IRS” model:

  • I – Intriguing beginning
  • R – Riveting middle
  • S – Satisfying end

But this often leaves people with a question. “What keeps audiences riveted?” To answer, we had participants at a recent group training share about themselves. Each of the following participants responded with statements that could be the basis of a riveting story:

  • “My job requires me to be risk averse. So, outside of work I pursue risk seeking adventures.”
  • “I love social gatherings! But I’m allergic to alcohol.”
  • “I’m one continent and one ocean away from my family.”
  • “I haven’t slept much since March of 2020.”
  • “I’ve never felt a sense of belonging at work until I joined this company.”
  • “I love reading storybooks to kids. But I often bore adults to sleep with my stories.”

Each of these beginnings are intriguing. The key is to telling stories that keep audiences riveted is to identify the central source of tension, and maintain that tension throughout the story. 

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Identifying Tensions

As the examples above illustrate, you don’t have to find a life-shattering tension for your story to be riveting.

Believe it or not, a story of the biggest conflict you ever had in the workplace can be the most boring story your audience has ever heard. Or the smallest conflict—losing your phone for the day or spilling coffee on your shirt before an important meeting—can be told brilliantly and keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Here’s an example a participant in a Leadership Story Lab training shared:

“I was on a business trip from Geneva to another European city. I was chatting with my colleague, enjoying the food and company. When it was time to get off, I couldn’t find my suitcase. My colleague was surprised by my reaction—instead of panicking, I was laughing. I had travelled for business for 25 years, and this was the first time I didn’t have my suitcase. I considered myself lucky!”

Losing your luggage is a tense situation, and the audience wonders how this person will respond to it. It’s satisfying that he responded in such a pleasant and unexpected way—by laughing!

A Dirty Word

You might be surprised that the dirtiest word in storytelling is thorough. Clients often carry this self-imposed mandate that they must be thorough in their storytelling. Not so.

Identifying the main tension in their stories and inspiring their audiences to ask questions is much, much more productive for everyone involved—the teller and the listeners.

Questions = Tension

Thriller writer Lee Child, author of the popular Jack Reacher series, says anyone can create suspense or tension by asking a question and leaving it unanswered until the end of the story. “The very act of asking a question makes people want to stick around and find out the answer,” says Child. “The power of asking a question is enormous.”

Although the examples above from the training participants don’t ask questions directly, they sure do raise them!

  • What kinds of risk-seeking adventures do you pursue outside of work?
  • Do people pressure you to drink alcohol at social gatherings? If so, how do you respond? If not, do you feel like an outsider?
  • How have you coped with being so far away from your family?
  • Why haven’t you slept much since March 2020?
  • What was the corporate culture like at your former companies? What is it about your current company that has allowed you to feel like you belong?
  • How do you know that adults were bored when you told your stories? Why did you think they were bored?

The key is making the audience think and work alongside you. The minute they stop working, their attention will drift. But with these simple ways of creating a riveting story full of tension, there’s no reason that should happen.

Read my interview with two experts on attention and memory. Get their advice on holding your audience’s attention.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
Karla Trotman and Robert Pasin

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  1. Feyzan Dalay on May 17, 2022 at 6:58 am

    I keep coming back to your website for checking out the latest. I did the Story Lab training a few weeks ago and amazing how much of it I retained and how useful it has been to my work.

    • Alessandra Rolffs on June 28, 2022 at 11:27 am

      Feyzan, Thank you for this wonderful feedback. We are glad to hear you’ve been able to implement the training in your work!

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