3 Storytelling Tips from Acclaimed Writer Burt Helm

At the Inc. magazine GrowCo conference in 2014, I had the honor of meeting and befriending Burt Helm, a brilliant writer with a ridiculously impressive résumé that includes experience at Inc. magazine, The New York Times, prestigious awards, an Ivy League diploma, and surprisingly, experience in the boxing ring.

new york times inc magazine

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of helping Burt prepare for a presentation at the Go Youth Conference in Portugal. Once Burt and I nailed down a solid content outline for his presentation, the talented Ethos3 presentation designers worked their magic creating beautiful slides for Burt.

Burt’s presentation reveals 3 storytelling tips that can work wonders for writers, entrepreneurs, and business professionals.

storytelling pitch

If you read the Ethos3 blog regularly, you know that at Ethos3, we believe in the power and importance of stories for connecting with others, engaging an audience, and spreading a message. Thus, we were perfect partners for this project; we relished Burt’s insights as much as he valued our presentation expertise.

storytelling presentation conference

During the presentation development process, Burt showed me his email inbox, which contains more than 21,000 unread emails. Many of these unread emails were pitches, and the subject line and first sentence failed to capture Burt’s attention.

Burt’s exploding inbox matters because it represents the overwhelming number of stories and ideas that are floating out in the world, hoping to get some time in the spotlight. Most of these unread emails were pitches from entrepreneurs, innovators, and business leaders. Their emails went unread or never received a response because the emails failed to capture Burt’s attention, mostly because they failed to reveal a fascinating story.

According to Burt, we all have great stories to tell. However, most people simply do not know how to identify and share their best stories. To keep your ideas out of the unread pile, and land a coveted position among the winning storytellers, first you need to identify your personal stories. Burt made it clear that a story should never be centered around a product, funding, or similar promotional topics. To identify your personal stories, know that the best topic is YOU. Your story can mention your product, funding, and similar topics, however you should be the main character of the journey.

storytelling how to

Do some soul-searching and sift through the transformative experiences of your life: failures, obstacles, lucky breaks, and epiphanies to find personal stories that will hook an audience and deliver a meaningful message. You surely have a story worth telling, it just might take some tough work to discover it.


Once you uncover a story you want to tell, don’t sit down to write an email to an editor, or craft your presentation content just yet.  First, read Burt’s 3 storytelling tips. He seems to know a thing or two about what makes a story exceptional.

Trust me, these 3 storytelling tips will help you captivate your audience during presentations, or catch the eye of an editor with your article pitch.

#1: Start your story with a complication.

story structure tips

When you tell stories during your presentations, hook the attention of your audience by starting with an enthralling intro. The beginning of your story is your opportunity to launch the audience into another time and place, as well as activate their imaginations by revealing the main character and their life circumstances.

So, what makes a gripping beginning for a story? A complication.

business storytelling

A complication is an unexpected situation that forces a character to make a choice. The complication can be good or bad, as long as it knocks the character off their expected path, and thus puts the character in a position to decide how to respond.

During his presentation, Burt shared a few examples of complications from everyday life, such as receiving an unexpected text message from an ex. The character who receives the text must decide how to react to the text message. Should she respond or ignore the text? And if she responds, what should she say?

storytelling example

Can you see how a complication can make an intriguing beginning for a story? Even though the character and text message in the example are fictional, I still want to know how she proceeds. Did she respond? If so, what happened next?

I will share one more example of a complication. Imagine a guy who wakes up groggy, exhausted, and hungry. Before he goes into the office for an important meeting, he needs to eat breakfast to help him wake up. After pouring his favorite cereal into a bowl, he opens the refrigerator and finds it void of any milk, or other breakfast options. What should he do? Run to the store to buy milk? Go to the meeting on an empty stomach? How will his decision impact the rest of his day, and perhaps his life? 

brand story

#2 Keep up the pace.

Once you hook your audience with a complication in the beginning of your story, keep up your momentum in the middle of your story.

story structure presentation

The middle of a story can be the most difficult to develop. Oftentimes, presenters fall into the storytelling trap of saying “I did this, and then I did that, and then I did this…” Doesn’t that sound like an incredibly boring story? If you tell stories in that style, most people will only hear “blah, blah, blah.”

To keep up the pace in the middle of your story, follow the structure used to create the wildly popular South Park series. Even though the humor in South Park episodes is not a good fit for all audiences, the South Park storytelling structure can and should be used to share stories with audiences of all demographics.

So what’s the South Park secret?

Using the two words, “therefore” and “but,” South Park creators craft stories that each have a dynamic middle. 

When you use “therefore” and “but,” the middle of your story can unfold in this style, “This happened, THEREFORE this happened BUT THEN this happened , THEREFORE that happened.”

storytelling professional tips

Here is an example based on the fictional story started above: My ex-boyfriend sent me a text and asked me to meet him for a drink, therefore I responded with a text message asking him to leave me alone, but he kept texting me all day, therefore I threw my phone in the river, but I forgot to backup my phone data, therefore I lost all of my photos and list of phone numbers.

The simple South Park structure made this fictional story more interesting. The rhythm created by the back and forth between “therefore” and “but” is hypnotic, and holds the attention of listeners better than simply listing the events in a “this happened, then this happened” style.

#3 End with a moment of transformation.

magazine storytelling

The ending is the most important part of the story. In fact, the ending is so important, you should develop your ending before you work on any other part of your story. Without a powerful ending, your story will be a flop, no matter how interesting the complication, or how exciting the plot.

To have a powerful ending, you need a gripping climax. So, what makes a good climax?

storytelling climax

In Burt’s own words, a good climax is the moment where everything changes forever—where you learned valuable lesson, or discovered something important about yourself, or made a decision that explains who you are today. 

The climax is the moment of realization. Even though transformative moments are impactful, they are not always easy to identify amongst all of your other experiences. Take the time to do sift through your memories until you discover a moment of true transformation.

storytelling structure ending

Ask yourself, “what moments changed my life, or the situation, forever?” Perhaps it was the moment you discovered your purpose, or uncovered the solution to a problem. Your moment of transformation will be unique to you, and therefore you are the only person who can truly select the best climax for your story.  

Conclusion: Ensure that your story stands out from the crowd. Start your story with a gripping complication, continue with a middle woven together with “therefore” and “but,” and conclude your story with a moment of transformation. Also, remember that product pitches, or funding announcements, are not stories; they’re self-promotional memos. To find a story worth telling, you need to dig deep to uncover moments of transformation. You can do it. Go find your story.

Additional Resources:

A Surprising Reason To Tell Stories During Presentations

5 Storytelling Tips for Presentations

The Science of Storytelling For Presentations (Infographic)

The TED staff answers: What Makes A Great TED Talk?

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