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Want to know how to tell stories and engage with your audience? Listen in to learn 4 ways to uncover your fun and relevant stories, and how to deliver them.

Topics covered

  • Tips on telling great stories in your speech
  • 3 structures of a great story
  • 4 ways to uncover great stories to tell in your speaking
  • A 5-step process for telling terrific tales

00:00 Welcome to Steal the Show with Michael Port. I am Michael Port, and this episode is about telling stories that make them laugh or cry. And remember, all of these episodes are based on ‘Steal the Show’, which you can get anywhere books are sold and you can get it with lots of bonuses at So go ahead and hop on over to, pick up your book, pick up the bonuses, and then get back here and listen to the episode.

00:29 So telling stories, [chuckle] you would be hard-pressed to find an article about public speaking that doesn’t start with, “Tell stories,” but I think there’s one word that’s missing. Can you guess what that word is? Yeah, it’s good “Tell good stories.” Because if you open a speech with a story that is not good, that doesn’t kill, well you’ve fallen flat even before you got started because people expect the story to be extraordinary if it’s something that you open a presentation with. Same thing as a joke, you open a presentation with a joke that doesn’t land, well you’re backpedaling at that point. And jokes and stories are very similar, so I’m sure you’d love to have the ability to develop and tell well-crafted stories and effortlessly deliver jokes that people love. I’m sure.

01:27 Now I’m not promising I can turn you into a comedian, I do a different episode specifically on comedy, but this is really about storytelling. And you can use the structure that I’m gonna teach you for storytelling when you’re writing jokes or crafting your stories. Look, the power of the story, it gets so much attention. And in fact, Amy Cosper, we had lunch a couple of years ago and I gave a speech for Entrepreneur Magazine, she is the editor-in-chief of the magazine, she dubbed 2014 as the year of the story. The year of the story. And I’m sure you’ve read how our brains are hardwired, that’s the buzzword of the year by the way, hardwired to respond to stories. At the youngest age, we are introduced to stories. It’s an ancient tradition of human expression, we all get that. But the ability to tell them is something dramatically different, and one of the things that people often ask is, “Well, how do I find stories to tell? I don’t wanna tell the same story that everybody else is telling.” Well there’s a couple different ways you can do it. Let’s start with your stories, the things that actually happened to you because those are the most important stories to tell when you’re giving a speech.

02:46 And there are four different prompters that you can use that will help you discover the stories to tell. Now I want you take out a piece of paper, and while you’re doing that, I’ll just recommend, I’ll suggest to you that you don’t limit your story exploration to the high-pressure time when you’re preparing for a performance. You do it now so you’ll have a bag of stories that you can pull from and apply to lots of different presentations. Now you can do this yourself listening to me, you can also do this with your friends or family. It really helps doing this with somebody else and right now, you’ll do it with me. So we’re gonna prospect for story ideas. Number one: People. First friends, teachers you admired, your college roommate, your first girlfriend. This is how you do it. So I want you to think right now about your very first serious girlfriend, what story comes to mind? Yeah, you see? You’re probably smiling right now, that’s exactly right. Something will come to mind that you hadn’t thought of in years, but all of a sudden you’re just thinking of your first girlfriend and, boom, she comes to mind. In fact, for me, I remember the time she poured a strawberry milkshake down the radiator of my car.

04:09 What I did, I don’t know, to deserve that, but she did. I haven’t thought of that in years, it’s quite funny, actually. So you can think of a teacher that you, let’s say, not even admired, it’s easier to remember the teachers that… Actually, let’s do admired. Admired is good, admired is good. Think of a teacher that you admired. If you didn’t have any teachers that you admired, I apologize. But think of a teacher that you admired, think of a story, think of something they said to you, something that happened. When I think of a teacher I admired, I think of Ken Reesh, who was my first acting teacher in college. And I got cast in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, it was the first big show I’d ever done. There were 50 people in the cast and I was playing Tom Joad and it was in a thousand-seat theater. And I thought I was doing a pretty good job in rehearsal, I was pretty proud of myself, and he took me aside and he said “Michael, you’re doing a fine job for your first time out, but I expect more than a fine job for your first time out. Don’t think of yourself as a first-time out actor. Think of yourself as a professional, and then what do you expect from yourself?” And I’d never forgotten that, never.

05:22 So that’s people. Now places, think about places. Maybe your childhood summer camp, a local hideout, or a favorite family vacation spot, a relative’s house that you really loved visiting when you were younger. Or maybe your first apartment that you lived in when you were married to either your first, second, or third wife, either one. So did something come up for you? Did you find a place? Okay, now think of something that happened at that place. See, I just thought about my first summer camp, Camp Killooleet. And I was a giant as a child. I was a man child. I was fully grown by 13, it was very strange. I was shaving in the 5th grade, it was really weird. People expected that I would act older than I was and here’s a little bit of an embarrassing tidbit, I wet my bed really late. Like I just couldn’t stop wetting my bed. I went to camp, and it didn’t happen very often, but once in awhile, it would happen. I was in the top bunk and I wet my bed. Needless to say, I was teased for quite awhile after that. So that’s a story that comes to mind and I’m sure I could find a use for that story somewhere, at some time, about an embarrassing situation and how to handle it.

06:43 So what you’re doing with that piece of paper is you’re just jotting down, “Oh yeah, story where I wet my bed.” “Oh yeah, story about when Ken told me I should think like a professional.” “Oh yeah, story when,” I’m not gonna say her name ’cause she’s actually kinda famous, and you’ll figure out who she is, “When my high school girlfriend poured the strawberry milkshake down my radiator.” So you just write them down, and you don’t know if you’re going to use them yet, but you may use them at some point. All right, now I want you to think about things. Maybe your favorite baseball glove or a diary from your teen years, a fishing rod, a sweater, maybe a sweater that your grandmother knitted for you, or the ill-fitting suit that your dad gave you that you wore at your first job and it was… The sleeves were six inches too long and the pants were five inches too long, and you were swallowed up by the jacket. So what comes to mind? Things. I want you to think of something. So for me, the thing that came up was my Atari game console. Now if you’re younger than I am, you have no idea what Atari is, but I’m 44 years old and when I was a kid, Atari was really cool. I mean it was the thing, it was Xbox of the ’70s.

08:03 And I remember every night before I’d go to sleep, I’d compulsively organize all of the… They were like these… They weren’t disks, they were like these boxes, almost like 8-track boxes that you stuck into the console. I would organize them compulsively on top of the unit, then I’d wake up in the morning and make sure that they were organized the exact same way, that nobody had touched my Atari games. Now I haven’t thought about that in years so you see how easy it is to recall stories, I’m sure you’re thinking of a whole bunch of them now. So whatever you just thought of, write down. Times and events. That’s the next prompter, the fourth. So maybe you had a car accident once. Or maybe the first day of middle school. Oh my God, that was terrible. I remember Andrew Fink, and him picking on me and throwing me up against a locker. I wasn’t picked on that much in high school or middle school, I don’t want you to feel bad for me, but I did get a little bit from time to time. Maybe that’s why I became an actor in the first place. Probably going for the approval rather than the results. If you listen to the episode on crushing your fears and silencing your critics, you’ll know what that’s all about.

09:16 So times and events. Maybe the day you dropped your first child off at college or maybe a serious illness. So what comes to mind? I remember my Bar Mitzvah, I remember that I was taller than the Rabbi ’cause as I mentioned earlier, I was a freak of nature, and I remember that he wore a wig, a blond wig, which was just kind of odd. I remember I was up there at the bema with him and I was looking at him and I think I spaced out for awhile ’cause I got caught up in his wig and I felt that every time he moved his mouth, the wig would move. I lost my place because I was so involved in his wig. Now I don’t know what I’d use that story for, but I’d put it on the paper. I play this game, play this exercise with my clients all the time so that they have dozens, if not hundreds, of stories that they can then pull from and craft, mold these stories so that they become extraordinary tales to tell. So you can also go deeper using this five step process; number one, make sure to choose stories that demonstrate the philosophical or practical application of your promise. You’ll find events when you can stretch to fit in a story you really like.

10:44 But if you’re speaking regularly to the same audience, they’ll definitely be turned off when they realize you’re using the same standard story over and over. But if you’re speaking to new audiences all the time, why fix something that isn’t broken? Use your best stories. If you’ve seen me speak, you’ve heard me tell the old man, the little boy and the donkey story. If you have followed me around the world to every single key note I’ve given at every single conference or every single company, you’d be a stalker, but if you were a stalker, you’d hear me tell that story over and over again because in the audience, generally, are different people, so I can tell the same story. I’ve had a few stalkers, it is a little bit scary, by the way.

11:26 Number two, communicate a passion and urgency for the story and a need to deliver it. You see, if you’re gonna tell a story when giving a speech or any kind of presentation or when you go to a dinner party with a bunch of people that you don’t know, you’ve got to have such a need to tell this story, but the need has to be relevant to the audience’s need. If it’s a story that can be told but doesn’t have to be told, then it shouldn’t be told. It’s a must-be-told type of event, and when you deliver it, you’ve got to bring that kind of urgency to it, that kind of passion to it. So one, choose stories that demonstrate the philosophical or practical application of your promise. Two, communicate a passion and urgency for the story and a need to deliver it. And number three, raise the stakes as you’re refining your story using the three-act structure.

12:20 I’m gonna get to the three-act structure in a bit because that really is the heart of story sculpting. But I wanna give you two more before, two more of the five-step process for telling terrific tales. I just made that up by the way, I think I’ll keep it. Number four, sculpt the story to serve the through line, sculpt the story to serve the through line. So consider how to shape a story to support the changes you are asking the audience to make or the point that you’re trying to get across. So if possible, use stories from your own life and use the prompting exercise that we just did. And then, you can embellish and dramatize a few details to make your point, but just no lying, that’s essential. If you ever are afraid that you’re gonna be found out as a fraud and you’re lying, then you are actually a fraud, so then you kind of actually will be found out as a fraud.

13:21 But if you do feel like a fraud sometimes and you’re not, then make sure you listen to the episode on ‘Crushing Your Fears and Silencing the Critics’. So here’s the thing, any story you tell, just like I mentioned, that you gotta have a need to tell it. It also needs to serve the through line. If it doesn’t help advance your message, drive to the promise of the presentation, then you shouldn’t tell it. So number one was choose stories that demonstrate the philosophical or practical application of your promise. Number two, communicate a passion and urgency for the story and a need to deliver it. Number three, raise the stakes as you’re refining your story using the three-act structure. Number four, sculpt the story to serve the through line. And number five, use the three-act structure in writing and telling the story. So I mentioned in number three that you raise the stakes as you’re refining your story using the three-act structure, and number five, I’m saying use the three-act structure in writing and telling stories. And here’s how the three-act structure works. I didn’t make this up by the way, Aristotle did. He’s this Greek guy from a long time ago and I’m sure you’ve heard of him.

14:33 And most plays, TV shows, movies are written and performed in the three-act structure, most stories are told in the three-act structure, many jokes are told in the three-act structure because jokes often are stories that have a punchline. Act one is the exposition, it’s the given circumstances, it’s the place, the time, the setting, the event, etcetera. It’s the information that the listener needs to have in order to understand what’s coming next. Too much exposition, they tap their watch and say, “Come on, buddy. Let’s go, I get the point. Come on. Come on.” Not enough exposition, they get lost and they say, “What’s happening?” It’s sort of like watching a French film. At the beginning you’re like, “What? Wait, who’s sleeping with who? I’m confused.” And you don’t want the audience confused and you don’t want them bored or frustrated like, “Come on, let’s go.” So you want just enough information to make sure they know and are prepared for what is coming next. And that’s act two, that’s the conflict, and the conflict is some sort of inciting event. Something goes wrong, there’s a challenge, there’s an obstacle to overcome. And this is the meat of a story.

16:00 Often, about 85% of your story time is spent in act two because you have a conflict and you have some action to attempt to resolve the conflict. However, another conflict occurs, tension builds. You take some action to try to resolve that. Another conflict occurs, once again, you take some action to try to resolve that and the tension builds and builds and builds and that’s where the stakes get higher. So you continuously raise the stakes so the audience is at the edge of their seat because that’s what’s exciting. They wanna know what’s gonna happen next and they go, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe this is happening. This is so exciting.” And then act three is the resolution. If it’s a joke, it’s the punchline. If it’s a story, then it’s, well, everybody died in the end or it’s they lived happily ever after, something like that. You see, this is a podcast, so I’m not editing out the mistakes. I’m gonna leave it real and leave it natural for you. If you want something clean and perfect, then buy the audio book of ‘Steal the Show’ and you’ll get everything word-for-word, just like the actual book. But here, we do it real. So that’s the three-act structure.

17:17 But what’s important to remember is that if the story is long, well that resolution needs to be worth waiting for, the payoff must be great. If the story is long, if the exposition is fine, but the act two, the conflict is very, very long and it doesn’t build and build and build and build, when you get to the payoff, then it goes, “Meh.” You know, that’s the audience response, “Meh,” then you missed somewhere, either in act two or act three, probably in act three. But if it’s a short story, then the payoff doesn’t need to be quite as big. You can get a, “Oh, interesting,” and that’s okay, perfectly fine for that particular story. So, you gotta make sure that the pay-off is worth waiting for.

18:06 Let’s wrap up with an exercise, an action item, something for you to do. So here’s what you’re gonna do: Take one of the stories that you discovered by thinking about people, places, things, or times and events, and begin to flesh it out using the three-act structure: Situation, conflict, resolution. You tell the story in front of a friend, you get notes because you ask them for notes on the exposition, which is act one. You ask them for notes on act two and you ask them for notes on act three.

18:35 So you say, “Listen, I’m working on sculpting the story. I wanna make sure that the exposition is fine so that there’s just enough so that you understand when the conflict occurs in act two. What’s going on? Is it too much exposition? Or is it not enough? Did you get it? Or were you saying, ‘C’mon, I wanna get it, let’s go already, move it.'” And the same thing in act two, you say, “Was there sufficient conflict? Was the tension great? Was it exciting to listen to? Did you wanna know what was gonna happen next?” And then on act three, you ask them was the resolution worth waiting for, was the transformation of the transition or the change, was it worth waiting for? Or if it’s a joke, was the punchline worth waiting for? And then send in that story to me at I’d love to see it, see if it’s a great story, and that’s it. Listen, your job is to go out there and steal the show in all the spotlight moments of your life. My job is to help you do that. So if you want more help, subscribe. Don’t forget to do that, I know that’s important, they tell me that’s important, so go subscribe and go buy ‘Steal the Show’.

19:45 If you wanna buy ‘Steal the Show’, the book, with all of the goodies, all of the freebies, all of the giveaways; you see, when we promote books, we have to encourage people, we have to move them, and so what we do is we give away the farm. We say, “Look, we will give you everything that we possibly have. It’s worth thousands of dollars, for real, but we’ll give it to you for free to get you to buy this book that cost a couple bucks.” It’s kind of a crazy model, but it’s how you have to move books these days. So go to, pick up a copy of ‘Steal the Show’, and you will be ready to get a standing ovation for all the performances in your life. This is Michael Port signing off. Keep thinking big about who you are and what you offer the world. Bye for now.