Many of us, from the time we were young, were read stories. Some of those stories were powerful and often had a message that taught us values.

As adults, we still applaud a good story. We likewise appreciate stories we find relatable when it stirs personal emotions without telling us how we should feel.

We are likely to remember context with a well-rounded illustration. Content marketing is a good example of how to use stories to win hearts while building trust.

We also use stories and illustrations in communicating with others when giving a speech, presentation, or speaking one-on-one.

Stories are a powerful tool to activate our brains. An article in Lifehacker makes the point that we become more engaged with a narrative.

Therefore, when used properly, illustrations and stories have a powerful effect on the overall theme of our message.

What are the best ways to use an illustration?

When are they appropriate and when should you avoid telling your story?

Here are six key elements to consider:

1. Keep illustrations relevant

Whether addressing your team or a vast audience, make sure your illustrations fit with the information and are relevant. Using illustrations just to tell a story, or to talk about something personal because it resonated with you at an earlier time, is not the correct approach.

All of us have good stories in our memory vault. We experienced an event that maybe changed our outlook on business practices or even our life. Perhaps an occurrence moved us in such a way that we thrill to tell it to others.

The danger in this method is that although the story is compelling to us, it might not be an appropriate fit for our speech or presentation.

Our goal in sharing a story is to make our intent stick. When we want to emphasize something, illustrations help us to remember that point.

Consider: Is the story you desire to share going to strengthen the theme of your speech or presentation? Or is the story simply a good story you enjoy sharing with others at the dinner table?

If you have to make your illustration work to fit into your theme, don’t use it. You do not want your story to detract from your meaning or else you will lose your audience.

2. Fit your audience

When we use an illustration in our presentation, our desire is to draw in the attention of our audience. We want them to have the same feelings we had when we experienced the event or initially heard the story ourselves. The way to do this is to make sure the story makes sense to them. To stir emotions, give the illustration in a way the audience see themselves in the event.

If our goal is to inspire to action, to move to tears, or provide a different viewpoint, an effective illustration will accomplish this.

Telling a good story that does not fit our objective has the opposite effect. People might remember the illustration, but they won’t remember its relevance.

Consider: Is the story you are about to share going to make sense to everyone present? Will you have to explain terms and phrases to your audience? Will you have to provide additional background information? If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, do not use that story.

3. Keep them simple and brief

How often have we heard stories that seemed to drag on? Avoid doing this to your audience.

Cut out superfluous words and adjectives that create more fluff for the story than is necessary. Stick to the facts to avoid making the story sound more extraordinary than it really is. And do not bring in side thoughts – they are distracting and unnecessary.

Adults have about an eight-second attention span. After roughly one minute, eyes begin to glaze over and our thoughts travel elsewhere. Your goal is to make the limited time you have count.

Consider: Are there parts of the story you might eliminate that won’t affect the heart of it or the outcome? Is it possible to rewrite it to make it easily understood?

Get to the heart of the story quickly or else your audience will forget why it began in the first place.

4. Use similes and metaphors

A simile is a figure of speech when something is likened to another: her tears flowed like wine. When you introduce something with “like” or “as,” you are using a simile.

A metaphor is a figure of speech with an implied comparison, when a word or phrase ordinarily used one way is applied to another: a blanket of rain. Metaphors are forceful and need little to no explanation.

Consider: Does your story have elements of a simile or metaphor and if not, can you incorporate these? Is your illustration powerful?

Your goal, again, is to help your audience remember your subject and drive home your theme.

5. Use examples

Some use stories as powerful examples for the subject. Keep the example brief and relevant. Be certain to present the example in such a way your audience is focused on the meaning.

When using examples, avoid creating controversy or embarrassing others, such as audience members. Be aware of whom your audience represents, what they do and their attitudes, to make sure your story is an appropriate fit.

Consider: Will your story or examples cause undue embarrassment to any in your audience? Are there any elements that some might find sensitive or cruel? If your story is personal, could you cause discomfort toward your family or friends, or even your audience members?

6. Use rhetorical questions

Finally, asking questions is an excellent way to keep the attention of your audience while driving home your objective.

As noted earlier, the attention span of your audience is minimal. To keep their minds from drifting, you might ask meaningful questions they can consider while you emphasize your intention:

“How would you have reacted if you were in this situation?” “When you hear (this thought), how do you feel?”

Questions that begin with: “Do you think…?” “Did you know…?” “What do you think…?” or “Why do you think…?” are also effective in stirring the intellect and emotion within your listeners.

Consider: What are some thought-provoking questions you could intersperse with your story, illustration or example? Will any of the questions cause discomfort? If so, use another question.

Maintaining a balance in your use of rhetorical questions is also needed because you want to avoid alienating your audience. If any of your questions will detract from your aim, sound condescending, or cause uneasiness, don’t use them.

Your goal is to keep their attention while emphasizing your argument.


Consider the purpose of your story, how well it fits with your theme, and the background of your audience. A good illustration stirs emotions while allowing for thoughtful discussion.

Want a quick guide for your next presentation?

Download the cheat sheet: “Use effective illustrations”