What skills does a storyteller need?

The art of storytelling is about so much more than just getting through the beginning, middle, and end of what you want to say. And learning some basic storytelling skills—including how to tell a story and a few narrative techniques—can be useful for a wide variety of purposes, including making you a more confident author, public speaker, or teacher, or even just a more confident dinner party guest.

Anyone can benefit from learning to tell more powerful stories—and anyone can master the storytelling skills to do it. Keep reading to explore some essential tips for telling a story, plus some insider guidance on how to improve storytelling skills and better communicate the narrative that you’re trying to share.

New York Times bestselling author Daniel José Older
Skillshare instructor and New York Times bestselling author Daniel José Older shares a story in his course on characters, conflict, context, and craft.

How to Be a Good Storyteller: 9 Tips to Get You Started

Good storytellers are made, not born.

While it might seem like certain people just have a natural gift for narrative techniques, much of the art of storytelling is learned through experience, education, targeted practice, or, in most cases, a mix of all three.

So, what are storytelling strategies that you can easily use in your own day to day? We’re sharing nine of the best storytelling tips we’ve got, with actionable takeaways that anyone can use, whether you’re interested in creative writing or just want to better communicate the narratives that are running through your head.

1. Start Where the Action Is

Set up is important when you’re telling a story, but if you want to grab your audience’s attention from the get-go, you’re usually better off starting in the middle—instead of at the very beginning. As you go, you’ll be able to weave in the details that round out your characters and their experience, all while having your listeners already invested in the stakes, the setting, and the outcome.

2. Have a Point

The difference between bland storytelling and engaging storytelling is that the latter has a payoff for its listeners while the former is interesting only to the storyteller. It’s impossible to figure out how to tell a story if you’re only focused on the “what” instead of the “why,” so make sure that there’s a central message for your audience, even if they won’t know what it is until the end.

3. Edit Down the Details

The more you work on a story, the more you’ll usually end up cutting out of it. Great storytellers know that every detail isn’t relevant, even those that might seem interesting at the outset. If you get too bogged down in the minutiae of your story you’ll end up losing the attention of your audience, so stick to what’s relevant and leave the rest on the cutting room floor.

4. Bring in Emotion

You can’t force emotion, but you can foster it. Audiences rely on the storyteller to guide them on how they should be feeling about particular aspects of the narrative they’re hearing, and they’ll look to everything from your words to your facial expressions and body language in order to figure it out.

5. Introduce Conflict

Ask any expert how do you do storytelling, and they’ll likely tell you that the key to good storytelling skills is embracing conflict, even if the ending that you’re ultimately driving toward is a happy one. An easy and linear path to the finish line isn’t going to keep your audience engaged. Instead, you want your characters to face obstacles—and a decent amount of drama—as they journey on their path.

6. Keep It Simple

Have you ever gotten frustrated with a book or TV show because you just can’t figure out what’s happening? Analyzing storytelling skills often comes down to deducing just how effective the storyteller was at conveying their narrative, even in spite of the twists and turns that keep it moving along. Regardless of the complexity of your message, the story itself should be easy to follow, and it should never leave your listeners feeling lost and confused.

7. Give Your Characters Opinions

In stories, as in real life, people aren’t just blank slates that things happen to; they’re dynamic, dramatic beings who react to the scenarios they find themselves in. Briefly but effectively tell your audience how your characters feel about the situations they’re in to give your story more substance and dimension.

8. Practice!

Wondering how can I improve my storytelling skills? The answer is practice. It might sound weird to rehearse a story in advance—especially one that you’re just planning on sharing casually—but practice is a big part of establishing good storytelling techniques. Not only will it help you develop your cadence, it will also allow you to identify gaps in the narrative and take out the things that aren’t working.

9. Read, Listen, Watch, and Learn

If you want to know how to improve storytelling skills, look no further than those who have already mastered it. Read books and essays, listen to podcasts, and watch narrative-driven films to absorb the qualities of good storytelling and discover for yourself what gets an audience hooked.

fiction writing exercises
A still from Skillshare instructor and author Gayle Forman’s class on fiction writing exercises.

4 Storytelling Skills That All Great Storytellers Share

The essentials of how to develop storytelling skills for the purpose of writing are the same as developing storytelling skills for business, leadership, teaching, or any other purpose you have in mind. It’s all about letting the story be your guide, and honing your craft over time to build confidence in your own abilities.

From George R. R. Martin to Ira Glass, great storytellers have a lot of skills in common—including many that you can adapt for yourself. Here are some of the big ones.

1. They’re Skilled Leaders

Successful leaders and successful storytellers share a unique ability to guide their followers where they need them to go. Work on developing your leadership skills in order to improve your storytelling skills, including strategic thinking and various ways to use your words to impact others.

2. They’re Concise

Even in epic novels like The Lord of the Rings, there’s still much that’s left unsaid. Great storytellers give just enough info to urge the story along without taking their readers off on endless tangents that fail to progress the primary narrative.

3. They’re Vulnerable

You can’t fake an emotional attachment to your story. Listeners need emotive input from the narrator in order to know how they should feel. And in order to provide them with it, you need to be able to open your heart—and your mind—to your audience.

4. They’re Decisive

Have you ever heard the term “in writing you must kill your darlings”? A successful storyteller knows what they need to leave on the cutting room floor—even those elements that they’re personally attached to. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t belong.

Remember: practice makes perfect. Becoming a good storyteller (and especially a great one) takes time, and it’s not a craft you can pick up overnight. Work at it though and your skills will improve fast, often without you even noticing.

Written By

Laura Mueller

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