How To Tell A Good Story and Inspire Your Audiences

Dan Santow
Dan Santow

Not long ago I returned from three weeks traveling through India by myself. While planning this eight-city adventure, a voice inside my head kept telling me I was nuts: India? Three weeks? Alone? It had a point. India is far away—and faraway one of the most challenging places on earth.

Three weeks is a long time. As for going alone, I don’t even like to venture to Trader Joe’s by myself.

But I want to think of myself as the kind of person who would go to India on his own. And I’m just shallow enough to want my friends, family and colleagues to think of me that way, too.

The day I was scheduled to depart was dark and stormy. I wasn’t leaving for the airport until 4 in the afternoon, and throughout the day I became increasingly agitated.

What had I gotten myself into? And how could I get out of it? I checked my traveler’s insurance to see what percentage of my money I’d get back if I canceled, but that was a nonstarter.

I paced, my dog empathizing with my anxiety by mewing as he unhelpfully followed me around.

My partner refused to indulge my crazy by locking himself in the den to watch a “Chopped” marathon on the Food Network.

The afternoon wore on until I finally fell into the seat of a cab and sped off to the unknown.


I’m often asked how to be a better storyteller, and my response is always the same: Practice telling stories. Your own. Your client’s.

There’s no better way to learn what works, what doesn’t, how to build suspense, include pathos when appropriate and humor when possible, edit the boring and amplify the surprising, and get comfortable with your audience.

Since I like to follow my own advice, I thought I’d start this column on storytelling by telling this story.

I’m also asked, why stories? Can’t we just give people the facts about our clients, their products and services, and let them act on the information? We can’t because facts don’t compel people to feel anything —let alone to do anything.

Stories are what move us, what attract us, what we remember. We start out in life hearing stories from our parents, watching “Mary Poppins” and “The Wizard of Oz” and listening to ghost stories around the campfire.

Stories help us understand the world and our place in it; they open our eyes to its wonders and woes; they inspire greatness within us; they make us feel loved and understood, a part of history and humanity.

The Bible, Shakespeare and Jane Austen remain compelling today because they speak to the human condition, and no amount of technology will change that.


Because of this, our clients have ever-higher expectations. To meet them (or, better yet, to exceed them), we must:

• Become fantastic storytellers so we can guide our clients to identify, expand, sharpen and tell their own stories.

• Recognize that content —the story itself—is more important than the messenger. If the vehicle through which we are telling our stories—that is, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, et al.—is getting more attention and buzz than the stories themselves, something is not working and we are failing our clients.

• Champion people. People inspire empathy, sympathy, love, hate, creativity and action; raw data, buildings, corporations, cans of food, financial disclosures, drugs and gigabytes do not.

• Remember that stories are about transformation—if, at the end of the journey, nothing has changed, then who cares?

At this point, I could remind you why the following things are integral to great storytelling:

• Authenticity and transparency

• Relevance and resonance

• Inclusion and diversity

But if you’re in this business, you already know how important these attributes are to storytelling. It’s time to put what you know into practice—and practice.


Tell stories. Write them down. Stand on a soapbox. Draw. Mime. Cook an incredible meal that tells a great story. Do an interpretive dance. (I’ve seen a client’s story come to life through dance and it was inspiring.)

I promise, the more you practice, the better, more comfortable, more compelling, more natural, more trusted, more creative, more articulate and more powerful storyteller you will become.


My trip to India turned out to be awesome. I took a cooking lesson in a private home in Jaipur. I was almost killed in Delhi when my rickshaw driver took a wide turn and just missed an oncoming elephant. I crashed a wedding in Varanasi.

I almost cried at the elusive beauty of the sun rising over the Taj Mahal. I stepped in lots of cow dung. (I was looking up all the time and there really are a lot of cows around.) I ate mutton.

More than anything else, I learned that I am, in fact, the kind of guy who goes to India for three weeks alone. I’m more fearless than I thought (just wait till my next trip to Trader Joe’s; anything could happen). And I’ve got a lifetime of new stories to tell.

As a result, I’m becoming a better storyteller. For myself. For my clients. That’s all any of us can ask of ourselves—that we do our best, act with integrity and help our clients tell their stories.

Practice may not actually make perfect, but without it, practically nothing will be possible. If nothing else, PR is the art of the possible. PRN


Dan Santow is senior VP and director of editorial services for Edelman Chicago. He can be reached at

This article appeared in the July 29 issue of PR News. Subscribe to PR News today to receive weekly comprehensive coverage of the most fundamental PR topics from visual storytelling to crisis management to media training.