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Home  /  Podcast   /  The Art of Storytelling with Bill Stainton – Episode #31

Host Evan Hackel speaks with Bill Stainton, 29-time Emmy winner and keynote speaker on leadership, strategic creativity and accountability, on how to utilize storytelling to make messages stick. Learn more about Bill by visiting or connecting with him on LinkedIn.





Announcer: Welcome to Training Unleashed, the show that will help you design and deliver training that’s off the chain and will make a difference. Now, here is your host, Evan Hackel.

Evan: Welcome to another exciting episode of Training Unleashed. Today we have a really great guest with us, we have Bill Stainton with us. I got to meet Bill in Oregon about a month ago. Bill is a professional speaker and he’s really an educator. And he’s the type of person I think really, from what I can tell having spent time with him and listening to a little bit of his stuff on his website, which by the way I highly encourage because his website is like a little mini training camp, I thought it’d be great to have him here. Because all of us can be better at speaking and he was willing to share some of those insights, talk to us a little about speaking, a little bit about storytelling, and get his insights and help make all of us better. So with that, Bill, please say hi to everyone and maybe give us some tips on being a better speaker.

Bill: Yeah. Primarily what I do is I’m a keynote speaker. I get out there in front of audiences, I open and I close conventions. But there’s a lot of intersection between the world of the keynote speaker and the world of the trainer, professional trainer. I mean, we’re both speaking in front of audiences. The purposes are somewhat different but there’s a lot of overlap in terms of how do you engage an audience, how you know, how can you become compelling to them. In my case it’s for anywhere from 45 minutes to 75 minutes. For a trainer, of course, it might be two to three hours or two to three days. But all of those things are really important. One of the keys to being a keynote speaker is you’ve got to be able to tell stories. And that’s the same with training, too. It might be a little more important for a keynoter because keynotes are kind of built around stories, but for a trainer, you certainly know this in your world, Evan, that we remember stories, we’re hard-wired to remember stories.

Evan: Stories are what make things memorable that’s, you know, there’s the whole adage, right? By the way, this is not true. But they say that people remember 10% of what they hear and they remember 70% of what they do, and those numbers are just totally bogus. But I think the concept is correct and I think the same thing [crosstalk 00:02:38] story, the idea sinks in. So I think you’re right.

Bill: The idea sinks in and makes it sticky. There’s a phenomenal book, it might been their first book by the Heath brothers, Chip and Dan Heath, called “Made to Stick.” It’s a great book. I think anybody who speaks really needs to get this book. And they talk about the power of storytelling, and how if you present ideas in the form of a story, people will remember them. We literally are hardwired to it. You think about, literally, the first human communication that we know of are the cave paintings in Lascaux, France. You were just in France. You look at those paintings, those are just individual paintings, those are a story. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to those paintings. It’s the story of the hunt. So this goes back a long…I mean, as an animal, we are hard-wired to remember stories. So if trainers don’t have good storytelling chops as part of their arsenal of training tools, you’re really missing out on something incredibly powerful.

Evan: First off, I love the fact you’ve told a story about telling stories by sharing the paintings story. It’s like you’re telling a story as you’re talking about telling stories. What are the tips? What are the keys to being good at storytelling?

Bill: Well, first of all, your story has to be compelling. I mean, the audience has to know why you’re telling the story. They have to know where you’re getting to, that there’s a point. I’ll give you a quick little tip. One really cool thing to do with storytelling is if you can begin and end the story the same way. It’s called circular construction, or I call it the mirror technique, if the ending of your story can mirror the beginning. Let’s say, for example, now I don’t have a story about this, but let’s say I were to tell a story and the opening line was something like, “I was never a cat person,” which is a claim that my girlfriend decided to put to the test on Thanksgiving Day 2016. Okay, then I tell the story. And then I get to the ending and imagine if the ending line is something like, “I was never a cat person until Thanksgiving Day 2016.”

See, that just kind of brings it all together. So it doesn’t have to be the actual first line and the last line, but when you try to figure out how to end the story, because endings are tough, endings are really tough, the best place to look for your ending is at your beginning. Like what are some of the key things that you said in the beginning and is there anything from the beginning that you can then circle back to and kind of tie it up in a nice little bow? And then, of course, you have to, have to, have to apply it to the learning. You can’t just tell stories and say, “Okay. Now it’s obviously something completely really different.” It’s got to be something like, “Well, here’s what I learned from that.” or “Here’s the takeaway,” or “How many of you, who here, has been in a situation like that. I mean, maybe not that exact situation, but a situation where you feel out of control,” or whatever the part of the story is. Okay, well, let’s talk about that. Here are the lessons.

I know there are some speakers, and certainly some trainers, who will tell a story because they think it’s a great story and then they don’t tie it to the content. And so the audience, the attendees, are thinking, “That was a great story, but that’s not what I paid my money for. It’s not helping me. It doesn’t tie in with anything.” So I mean, there has to be a purpose for the story.

Evan: Yeah. Do you tend to tell a story in parts and make the points in the middle? Or do you tend to tell the whole story and then go back to the story to make your points after the story is complete?

Bill: That’s a really good question. It depends on the length of the story. I mean, stories don’t have to be 20 minutes long, some stories are three or four sentences. If it’s a longer story, I’ll what I call a “breakout” of the story, more often. I’ll tell a story, I’ll get to a point, and I say, “Now, that’s kind of your world also.” Like let’s say I’m speaking to steelworkers, I’m gonna be speaking to some steelworkers in about a week, and I’m gonna tell a story about, I mean, my background is in television, comedy television. I’ve worked with people like Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres. My team and I literally invented “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” He was my lowest paid writer at one point and then…

Evan: Really?

Bill: Something went wrong, a guest didn’t show up. We were desperate and Bill said, “Maybe I could do something.” I was like, “Shut up, Bill.” Okay, fine. Let’s give it a shot. Excuse me. You want me to start that… Okay, now I will start that over again. One, two, three. For example, I’m gonna be speaking to steelworkers and I’m gonna be telling them a story about how my team and I, my background was television, we literally invented “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” Well, that’s a bit of a long story about how that happened and is funny, and there’s all kinds of cool things in it. But there are parts where I’ll break out and bring it to their… I won’t wait until the end of the story to bring it to their world. I’ll say, you know, “Here’s what happened,” you know, blah, blah, blah, and “a guest canceled the day of the show and that was a crisis. I mean, imagine, in your world you’ve got crisis like these also that you’ve got to deal with.” And I will use the research that I’ve done because I try and customize everything.

For example, you might have a client call you the day before you were gonna do an install and blah, blah, blah. So, are you with me? So that’s what I was going through. Same thing you feel, that’s what I was going through. And then now it’s back to my story, but I’m kind of checking in with them. And the longer the story, the more often you need to do that, the more often you need to kinda check in with them.

Another cool technique that I do sometimes is I’ll start a story and I’ll get to…there are two ways to do this technique. I’ll either end on a cliffhanger, “And that’s when the rain started,” or “That’s when something went wrong.” I’ll say, “Now, who here has been in a situation like that, blah, blah, blah.” And then I’ll start doing the training, I’ll start doing my content. I’ll do that for maybe 10 minutes or something. And then all of sudden you say, bring it back, and say, “Okay. So there I was, hanging off the cliff.” And they’ll go, “Oh, yeah. Right. Right.” Because they want to know how the story ends. We’ve all been in that situation, where it’s like 3:00 in the morning and we’re still watching some horrible movie on TV because we can’t go to sleep because we have to know how it ends. Again, it’s hardwired. We wanna know how the story ends.

So I’ll do that. Or another way to do this is get to what appears to be the ending of a story and then make your point and apply it to your attendees and go onto your training, and then say something like, “Okay. Earlier I told you about blah, blah, blah, the story. Here’s the part that I didn’t tell you.” And when you do that and do a little pause, all of a sudden the audience wakes up a little more. It’s like, “Oh, there’s more to the story.” And now they’re engaged, because their mind’s not gonna wander. “Here’s the part I didn’t tell you.” So one, there’s more to the story. And two, there’s a little mystery. Like, “Oh, what is it?” What is the part that he or she didn’t tell me? And then you wrap it up with the real ending of the story.

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Evan: Now, Bill, I’m gonna chime in here for two things. One, the power of storytelling is it creates a picture in your mind, right? And so, as you’re telling your story, I’m thinking about the story when I speak that I tell.

Bill: Right.

Evan: And so I do a thing where I start off with a video of a professional skier in 1975, who happened to be a personal friend of mine, and then I show a video of a professional skier today and how much better they are. And the whole point is the need for constant improvement, seeking excellence is a never-ending journey. So I’ll talk about that, and let’s about your industry and all things that have changed, blah blah blah. And then I go further down the line and I go, “Oh, that one thing I didn’t tell you about that story. That second skier happened to be my son.”

Bill: That’s fantastic.

Evan: And then they go, “Wow.” Then I tell them…

Bill: And you feel it in the room when you do that, don’t you? I mean, you can feel the energy come back.

Evan: Exactly. And then I talk about all the work he did to get to that point, which is really a second story. Because the first story is talking about never-ending improvement, the second story is talking about how it doesn’t happen by accident and how much you have to work to get there. And so, one, I’m just building on what you just said, but, two, demonstrating the power of a story. Because I’m sure, as people are listening to us, they’re thinking of stories in their lives or thinking they can use and hopefully apply. I want to change the topic. Go ahead.

Bill: Oh, I was gonna say that’s another…you just brought out something important. Please develop your own stories. If you want help with that, contact me, we’ll talk about that, and I can help you with that. I’ve got whole modules on that that I can talk about. Don’t just use…in the speaking world we call it the starfish story. “Oh, I made a difference to that one throwing starfish back.” If you don’t know it, it’s probably in “Chicken Soup for the Soul” or something. Don’t use the same hackneyed stories that everybody else is using. Because instead of engaging the audience, you’re gonna put them to sleep because most of them have heard that story already. Use your own story. If you’ve lived any kind of a life, you’ve got dozens of great stories. You may not know that you’ve got dozens of great stories. but I promise you you do. And I can help you find them if you want to.

Evan: What’s interesting is when you sit back and say to yourself, “I want a story about this,” and you can’t think of story, all of a sudden, in the next week or two, they’re gonna just come back, you’re gonna see some.

Bill: Yeah, you will. And there are techniques. Here’s one quick thing, and I know you wanna get on to something else, when people are looking for stories from their own life, they’re asking the wrong question. Because they say, “Okay, when did something really interesting happen to me?” Or “When did something happen that relates to sales?” Or “When did something funny happen to me?” And you maybe come up with one or two [inaudible 00:13:55]. Here’s the magic question that’ll unlock dozens, maybe even hundreds of stories, and it’s this, “When did something go wrong?”

All of you listening, here’s what I want you do. Next time you have a free half hour, just a half an hour, sit down with a pad of paper, you can do it on like a computer, too, but there’s something about the actual action of writing something down…and just think of everything in your life that you can think of, every time, every instance, where something went wrong. It can be anything from when you locked yourself out of your house to your 4-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia. Anything. Because stories are built on a conflict, and a conflict is when something goes wrong.

So, I promise you, if you take a half an hour, you’ll come up with a list of at least 20, any one of which could be a great story to tell your attendees. And then the trick is, “Okay, now how do we apply it to their world?”

Evan: Sure.

Bill: Yeah.

Evan: So just kind of quickly, because I think it’s interesting, you have a background in comedy.

Bill: I do you.

Evan: You had a show on “Comedy Central” for two and a half years.

Bill: True.

Evan: And I’m gonna make this statement, I think you’ll agree, comedy is like the toughest thing for a speaker to add. And if you’re not naturally good at it…

Bill: If you’re not actually good at it, yeah.

Evan: Yeah. Storytelling is different. You can work and build a good story and get really good at comedy and it’s dumb rights fantastic, very few people can do it. So my question isn’t how you bring comedy in, because I don’t think we can help people do that. My question is this, “How do you go from comedy to being a professional speaker? And why does that add value to someone that hires you?”

Bill: Oh, it’s huge. I probably get hired more because I’m funny than because of my… When I speak, I’m speaking about leadership, I’m speaking about creativity, I’m speaking about producing under pressure. Those are my topics, that’s my expertise. The reason I get hired, and more appropriately the reason I get hired again, is because I’m funny. You may not be seeing it now, but it’s true. I really am.

Evan: No, I know you’re funny.

Bill: When I’m on stage, again, if you to talk engaging an audience… Here’s the thing, first of all, how did I get there? One, they canceled the show and I needed a gig, I needed a job. But also when you’re on TV, I mean, I produced the show, I was also on the show. But when you’re on TV…

Evan: Why don’t you share the name of the show, what that was?

Bill: It was called “Almost Live,” it was on the air for 15 years in Seattle, which is where I’m coming from now. But we were also on “Comedy Central” for two and a half years, back in the early days of “Comedy Central.” But when you’re on TV, you get asked to speak in public a lot anyway. So I was used to doing that and I had developed those kind of chops and skills. The part about being funny, though, I mean, again, it’s all about engaging the audience. Here’s the thing. If you’re in front of an audience, whether it’s me, as a keynoter in front of 2,000 people attending a conference, or you, the person listening to this podcast in front of 20 people in a training room or 200 people in a training room, if you’re up there, especially if you’re upholding a microphone or wearing a microphone, if you’re up in front of other people, it’s a show. You might think, “No, I’m actually here to train about on Microsoft Excel.” I don’t care.

When the audience sits down in the seats and you get up in front of them, they’re sitting down to watch the movie and their biggest hope is that it’s gonna be a good movie. You know it, you’ve been in the situation yourself. When you signed up for training, you’re hoping that the guy in the front or the woman in the front is not gonna be dull. You wanted it to be a good show. And if you can add humor, that’s gonna make it a great show, especially in the beginning. And there are actually multiple beginnings in a training. In a keynote, there’s just kind of one beginning. In training, there are so many chances to make a great first impression. When you first start off, after the first break, at the beginning of the second day, after the… Like, every time you come back, if you can do a little something that’s gonna make things fun or funny or experiential, that’s gonna engage the audience so… And it doesn’t have to be… Look, you don’t have to be Jerry Seinfeld or Jim Gaffigan or something like that. Especially if you’re a trainer. Now, at a keynote level, they expect you’re gonna be at a…

Evan: Really high level.

Bill: At a training level, I mean, Evan, you know this and it’s…I hate to even say it, but you know it’s true, the bar is so low. Because they’re expecting to be bored, they’re hoping they won’t be, but they are expected to be. And if you just, if you as the trainer, show even just a few little comedic chops, maybe throw up just a cartoon that you brought from the “New Yorker” that applied. I mean, anything that’ll help. And all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh, my, thank you. Thank you, thank you for not being dull.” That’s the only real huge mistake a trainer can make, is being dull.

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Evan: But, you know, you make a very good point about even if you’re not good at telling a joke, you can do it graphically with interesting pictures on PowerPoints.

Bill: You can do that. You can… First of all, I am not a lawyer, I have played one on TV. But maybe there’s a really funny YouTube clip or something that applies to what you’re training on. That’s the way to get…but, I mean, like a funny one. You show that, and it doesn’t have to be even about the training, it could be something that’s just like a story, it’s funny, and then you find a way to apply it to the training. But what you’re doing is you’re just trying to shake things up a little bit, you know. We’ve had a lot of dry training here. I need something funny here, just to kind of wake the audience back up. Is there a video clip someplace? Because that way it’s not dependent on you. You just push play, the video plays, and you’re gonna get laughs. And here’s the thing, you get the credit for it because it’s your show, because you’re the one running the show. So you still get the credit for it.

Evan: So, Bill, let’s turn now and let people know a little bit more about how you could help them.

Bill: Sure.

Evan: Because coming here, sharing knowledge here, is obviously in exchange for people knowing a little bit about you. If I’m a person, I’m looking to hire someone like you to do a keynote or an incredibly important breakout on an important topic, what is it you do to help your client get great value in using you as a speaker?

Bill: The most important thing I do, in addition to the comedic chops, I mean, your audience will be entertained, whether it’s a keynote or break out, the most important thing to me is to make sure it resonates with your audience. I don’t have a cookie-cutter speech. I mean, I’ve got titles. The most important thing for me, and it’s true for trainers also, is to customize it to make sure it resonates with the audience. I do that a number of ways. I’ve got a pre-program questionnaire form which gives me kind of the basics. I’ll have a conference call with you and the rest of the meeting planning team. And here’s where it really gets cool. I love the opportunity to talk to, say, five to seven people who are gonna be in the audience. People like you, if you’re the meeting planner, suggest, “Hey, talk to this person, talk to this person, talk to this person.”

And I want people who are like from different areas of [inaudible 00:22:14]. So like, maybe there’s somebody who’s just starting out and somebody who’s been there for a long time and, you know, a man and a woman, so I get different perspectives. Because then here’s the cool thing, and this is good for trainers also, I can tell a Jerry Seinfeld story or an Ellen DeGeneres story. I’ve got them. So I can do that. That’s cool. What’s even cooler is if I can say, if I can make a point, “Okay, now we’re gonna talk about the importance of building a great team.” And I can talk about my team with “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and people like that. Or…well actually and/or, then I could say, “But you know what? I was talking with Jennifer the other day. Jennifer, where are you? You all know Jennifer? I love what Jennifer did when she was building her team. Jennifer, do you mind if I tell the story?” And I’ve cleared it with her beforehand, of course. Or if it’s a small enough of group, I’ll say, “Jennifer, could you come up here and tell what you did?”

But whether I’m telling her story or she’s telling her story, now the audience is riveted. And it doesn’t have to be a beautifully crafted story, because it’s all about them. Talk about customization. I mean, it’s not just me doing my research and my homework, which I do every single time, but it’s also me, first of all, making them the hero, making them the star. But if people say, “Well, how can he make sure it’s gonna be relevant to and resonate with our attendees?” Because I’m getting my material from your attendee, I’m going to feature them.

Evan: If I could just chime in here just about what you just said. I told the story about how I showed 75…great friend of mine..and my son.

Bill: I loved that.

Evan: I went to an event and I interviewed people just like you described. Found out that one woman was a professional snowboard. I went on and found a videotape of them doing snowboarding tricks. And then I’m in later in thing and I said, “By the way…” And I built up the importance of whatever it was and then I showed the video of the person in the audience. And then, of course, I said, “Let’s give Terry a big hand,” and they all applauded. It was like so lucky to find something that match someone.

Bill: Yeah, but here is the thing. What it took was that you thought to do it. Most people, most speakers and most trainers don’t. They say, “Well, I’ve got my speech and I’ve got my training and I’m just gonna do it.” And they don’t think about that extra step. When you did that, it probably didn’t take a huge amount of… I mean, it took some time to do that and find it. But again, when you’re in front of a room and you do something like that, and all of sudden you feel the audience shift, the energy shifts. And as a trainer, as a keynoter and a trainer, it makes everything else so much easier, because now the audience knows that you’ve got their back, that you’re on their side, that you are… So now they’re gonna listen at a different level. Because you’re not just the generic trainer coming in, you’re not just the generic keynoter, you’re somebody who…you get them.

And just like with personal relationships, if you’re having a conversation with somebody who you feel like, “Oh, they’re really listening to me. They really get me.” That’s my job as a keynoter, that’s your job as a trainer. Most keynoters don’t do that. Most trainers would not do what you did. But as simple an idea as that was, it’s a profound idea that 9 out of 10 trainers would not have done.

Evan: But if you think about all the people in this room that do training in some fashion, they probably do know people that are gonna be in the audience that might be examples of doing something right that they could bring out. Because they know the people in their audience and we have to learn they know because they’re already doing it. I’m gonna share a quick story to the reverse of what you said, and this should make everyone here think a little bit about this. I know someone that charges $50,000, $60,000 a speech. And I was meeting with them…

Bill: Yeah. That’s not me, by the way.

Evan: …and I got five topics but one speech.

Bill: Right.

Evan: I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “Well, it doesn’t matter. You pick one of the topics, the same speech. I just give the same speech over and over again.” And that’s the issue of customization, right? Because it doesn’t matter who the audience is, it doesn’t matter what the topic is, it’s the same speech. And I think that when I’ve hired speakers for events I’ve run, people can tell when the speaker really knows and understands. So I really commend you for what you’re doing. I think we’re not just out of time, I think we’re probably overtime. If you have to give somebody one tip in the training profession, what would that one tip be?

Bill: Get the mindset that you are putting on a show, and you want to make it a great show for them. Yes, you want to train them. You’ve got to make it a show. Another thing I would add to that is, as a trainer, don’t just give them the how. You have to give them the how, that’s the important… They need to walk out of the training knowing a skill they didn’t know before, knowing how to… But the how without the why is meaningless. You’ve got to give them the why. Why is it important to learn this? Why is this gonna help him?

Evan: Bill, we got two tips for you, double bonus. We shouldn’t give like double jeopardy. One is always remember it’s a show no matter what, and that means prepare and present and be entertaining, and be grasping and inspiring, all the things we’ve been talking about. And two is it’s not just the how, it’s the why. By the way, these are two great tips, I strongly agree with them.

Bill, it’s been fantastic having you. Why don’t you quickly, because not everybody gets to read the blurb, share your website verbally.

Bill: Yeah, the website, it’s my name,, B-I-L-L, S-T-A-I-N-T-O-N. You know what? I’m gonna make it easier. You can also use It goes to the same place,, because that’s what I’m all about. As trainers, that’s what you’re all about, too, producing results.

Evan: Well, Bill, it’s been fantastic having you. Really appreciate having you on the show. Thank you very much.

Bill: Thanks. It was a blast seeing you again, Evan. Take care.

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