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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!

14 Responses to “The #1 Storytelling Mistake Speakers Make (and 3 ways to fix it)”

  • Craig

    I have sent you a mail using the form on the website but I had no answer. Could you check if something went wrong?

  • Cool. Thanks for putting up this. It is always nice to see someone give back to the world.

  • For some reason my browser doesn?t display this page correctly? Anyway, it was a really interesting article, keep up the good work and I will be back for more

  • Aphline W.:

    Hi, Mr.Craig:)
    Thanks alot for these great tips, I’ve never had a deeper understanding of dialogue in the “world of speech”. Well,not untill you introduced me to Mr.”DIALOGUE” and I’m not afraid to admit that I was a “CNN reporter” instead of a “Speaker”:) Because now I can say ‘then I said,”Craig….”‘ but I used to say “I told Craig…” 😀

    So, Mr. Craig, how many dialogues would you prefer for a 20 minutes speech or a 4 minutes speech?

    (DIALOGUE, DIALOGUE, DIALOGUES keeps the audience on the edge of their seat)Thanks Mr. Craig for all your tips, they are AMAIZING.

    • craig:

      Thanks Aphline. I can tell you now have the dialogue spirit. Your speeches will continue to rise to new heights. Congrats.

  • I love your 52 speaking tips.
    You are truly one of the best speakers out there. What sets you apart is that you have struck an excellent balance between confidence and humbleness, without arrogance. I hope you can continue to do so because that’s what keeps you connected to your audiences, but not many speakers of your caliber are able to do that. Most of them become so arrogant they turn me off. God Bless you for knowing the difference between professional confidence and arrogance.
    My first CD of humorous stories –Back on The Farm — will be coming out soon. My web site is under construction but I should have a merchant account soon. My son works for his paying customers first, then mom.

    • craig:

      Thank you Barbara. That means the world to me, because I truly believe in the importance of being similar to your audience rather than trying to elevate yourself above them. When your CD comes out, I’d love to purchase one. I know you made me laugh at the Champ Camp!

  • Palmo Carpino:

    …quick example from my speech to the engineering students at the Colorado School of Mines
    (see above)

    A quick example from my speech to the Colorado School of MIMES
    see below

    ” “

  • sidney:

    Can you all three dialogues in a speech. Meaning i did my Narration…Right and and i see the audience is wondering “sidney what’s the point and i said “That’s what i was thinking? i thought i had this nailed. So i said “sidney are you sure”? I then turned to my wife and she’s looking at me if i had to heads” Have you ever been in a situation when your partner is looking at you like that!

    So is this to much? Or do you stay with one type of dialogue?

    • craig:


      That’s funny. It’s completely fine to use all three types in one speech but I wouldn’t necessarily use them so close together. I always use all three in my speeches, but keep in mind most of my speeches are 30-90 minutes. As our stories unfold, they will dictate which kind of dialogue we use at specific times. For example, if something jarring just happened to me, chances are I’ll have some interesting inner dialogue that my audience should hear. At another point in the story, characters are talking to each other so that’s going to be dialogue between characters. The audience dialogue will start to become evident after you’ve told the story a few times and you begin to see their reactions to certain parts of the story. Eventually you’ll start to figure out what they’re thinking and then you can verbalize those thoughts by giving them dialogue. So the audience dialogue is often something that arises after you’ve given the story a few times. I hope this helps!

  • thanks, these tips are really helpful. You’re probably thinking “…’Arnout Van den Bossche’…, what kind of name is that? Where is this guy from?”
    Well, that’s making people curious…

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