The #1 Storytelling Mistake Speakers Make (and 3 ways to fix it)

The Most Common Storytelling Mistake

By far the most common mistake speakers make with their stories is having too much narration and not enough dialogue. For example, they’ll say something like the following:

“And the principal threw me out of the school and told me never to come back.” Now that’s narration. However, dialogue would go something like this:

“And the principal looked me directly in the eyes and said, ‘Mr. Valentine, you are expelled. Don’t ever step a foot back into this building.’” That’s dialogue.

FYI – this is only an example, I was never actually expelled from anything

The Necessary Adjustment 

If speakers would make the simple adjustment of replacing much of their narration with dialogue, they would automatically and immediately do one of the most powerful things in public speaking. They’d bring the audience into the present moment of the scene they created. Narration is retelling a story but dialogue is reliving it. When you relive it, the audience hears exactly what you heard exactly how you heard it. They feel like they are there!

Three Types of Dialogue you can use to Bring your audience into your Scenes

Most speakers at least know about using dialogue but they might not know there are three major types of dialogue they can use.

  1. Dialogue between characters
  2. Inner dialogue
  3. Audience dialogue

Let’s listen to a quick live audio example of each.

Dialogue between Characters

This occurs when one character is talking to another. Listen to this quick example from my speech to the engineering students at the Colorado School of Mines

[audio:|titles=Dialogue Between Characters]

The key to using dialogue in between characters is to set up the dialogue with a bit of narration. For example, the narration part was “I was so upset about this I called my friend Steve and I said…” That narration set up the dialogue of “Steve, you’re positive. Tell me something…”

The other key to using dialogue between characters is to make sure we know which character is talking. In addition to many Deliver Devices (click here for details) you can use, you can also put the recipient’s name in the line of dialogue (i.e. “Steve, tell me something…). By using Steve’s name, you now know that I’m the one who is talking. Then Steve says, “Craig, you write that book…” and we know Steve is the one talking. I picked this strategy up from Patricia Fripp

Inner Dialogue

Whereas dialogue between characters brings your audience into a scene, inner dialogue does something even greater. It brings your audience into your character’s mind. You can’t get closer to a character than that! Knowing what’s going on in a character’s mind lets your audience connect with you much deeper. Listen to this 15 second example again from the Colorado School of Mines:


The key to using inner dialogue is to avoid the phrase “I thought to myself…” Whenever I hear someone use that phrase, I ask, “Well, who else are you going to think to?” Just say, “I thought…” or “I’m thinking…” Please remember that reactions tell the story. When you can show your reactions on your face and couple that with the inner dialogue of whatever your character is feeling, that will really bring your audience into your situation and keep them hooked.

Audience Dialogue

This is one of the most important yet most neglected tools you can use as a speaker. Give the audience dialogue. This simply means, verbalize their thoughts in dialogue form. Or you can even verbalize what you want them to think and then put it into dialogue that seemingly comes from them. Listen to this 10 second example also from the Colorado School of Mines:


Obviously my audience was not actually thinking that, but I still connected by giving them dialogue even if it was just playful. So it still worked. Keep in mind I still had them use my name in the line of dialogue in order to clarify who was talking (or thinking). However, the best time to give your audience dialogue is when you can truly anticipate what they are thinking and then you can verbalize it. For example, you might tell what seems like a crazy story and then say, “You’re probably saying, ‘Craig, that’s crazy!’” Whenever you know what they’re thinking, verbalize it in dialogue coming from them. They’ll either laugh or think. Either way, you’ll connect on a deeper level.

Some of the phrases you can use to give your audience dialogue are the following:

  • You’re looking at me as if to say, “Scott…(dialogue)”
  • Now you might say, “Janet…(dialogue)”
  • You say, “Craig…(dialogue)”


Final thoughts

Keep in mind that good dialogue is still set up by some narration. If you only use dialogue without any set-up narration, your story will look more like a stage play. You don’t want that. If you only use narration and no dialogue, you won’t have a story. You’ll have a CNN report.

You’re probably saying, “Okay Craig. Enough already. I get it.” That’s good dialogue!

Craig Valentine

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