Five Storytelling Tips From Barack Obama


When Sen. Barack Obama made history last week, I wrote a post about his skills as a storyteller.  I included the above clip from YouTube, in which he tells the story of his first trip to Greenwood, S.C. and how it produced his campaign’s signature chant “Fired Up! Ready to Go!.”

I’ve thought more about the Greenwood story and I think there are five storytelling lessons we can take away.

Lesson 1: Start with the Point

Like all good storytellers, Obama begins with the point. “I want to [tell] a story that some of you know. It shows the importance of one voice. It’s a story of my first trip to Greenwood.”

In addition to ensuring that your listeners get the point, starting with the “moral” creates a mystery that drives the narrative. Knowing the story’s destination, listeners pay attention to unravel the mystery of how to get to that destination.

Let’s say that you’re an attorney giving a presentations about litigation strategies. You might start a story by saying, “I want to tell you a story that illustrates how little mistakes can lose a lawsuit.”  If your listeners want to win lawsuits, they’ll listen carefully to find out how.

Lesson 2: Narrate Chronologically.

Obama allows his story to unfold as a series of chronological events.

I fly into Greenville and get in late. It’s about midnight. I get to my hotel about 12:30. I’m exhausted. I’ve been campaigning for 10 straight days and I miss my daughters. I miss my wife. I’m dragging my suitcase into my hotel room when suddenly I get this tap on my shoulder. I look back. It’s my staff person who says, “Senator, we’ve got to wake up at 6 am tomorrow.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because we have to go to Greenwood like you promised.”

Of course, Obama could have just said, “We woke up early and drove to Greenwood.” But that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as allowing the story to unfold in movie-like fashion.

Any business person can enliven their presentations with the same narrative style. You could say, “My CFO was angry.”  Or you could say, “I went in to see my CFO to discuss our budget. Sitting behind his desk, he looked angry. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’ve decided that you’re either an idiot or are trying to make me angry. Which is it?’”

The narration is more interesting.

Lesson 3: Details make it live.

Obama includes vivid details.  Once he arrives in Greenwood, S.C. he describes meeting Edith Childs, who originated the chant “Fired up! Ready to Go!”

“She’s dressed like she’s going to church,” he said. “She’s got her church hat on.” The church hat brings the story to life.

I worked with a lawyer who told a story about an emergency hearing held in a judge’s home. He grabbed his listeners by describing the living room where the hearing occurred.

Lesson 4: Reemphasize the point.


Obama ends by reminding the listeners of the point: “One voice can change the world.” Reemphasis brings finality.


Lesson 5: Practice


Obama has told the Greenwood story many times, refining it with practice. Great story tellers rehearse a lot. Stories tighten with age.


Learn to tell a story. As Obama knows, it’s a skill that can take you a long way.

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