How to identify and tell your most powerful stories (like Steve Jobs)

Steve Jobs’s Stanford commencement address is always at the top of the list of anyone’s favorite speeches. Many think of Jobs’s talk as their favorite because it is incredibly moving — thanks to the stories it contains.

We love to hear talks like this, but few are comfortable delivering them. Why? Because great stories expose our flaws and our struggles. Here is how to go about delivering the right story.

Trigger Stories Through Memory Recall

Most people try to recall memories chronologically when developing a story for a talk, but there’s another way to conjure up deeper, dormant stories.

Sit down with a notepad and think through the nouns that are important to you — 

  • people, 
  • places, 
  • and things that have shaped your life.


Write your name in the center of the paper, and start drawing out types of relationships: family, friends, coworkers, and so on. Each time you draw a connective line between you and someone else, think through the relational dynamics and emotions. There’s a story in there!


Get as specific as you can in recalling places that matter to you: the middle school hallways, the cabin at camp, the soccer field, that mountain, whatever.

Retracing your movements will trigger scenes, sounds, and scents. It will dislodge memories that will reveal to you long-forgotten events and interactions.


Take note of objects or items that have symbolic meaning in your life: gifts, awards, books — any items you’ve loved. Sketch pictures of these symbols and recall what makes them emotionally charged. These items don’t hold meaning for others, but they do for you. Why?

Create a Story Catalog

Once you’ve curated a host of stories that you can use in various types of situations, take your list and create a personal story catalog that you can turn to.

Create and manage this list in the way you work. It could be a journal or a spreadsheet with summaries. You can use categories to sort by situation, theme, mood, or moral. Use whatever categorization makes the most sense for you.

Choose Stories with Your Audience in Mind

To choose a story for your talk, remember who will be receiving it. Some of the stories are going to be hilarious and crack people up. Others are going to bring tears to their eyes or give them deep-seated hope. 

The same stories will evoke a different response from different people. One story that brings awe to one person could incite rage in another.

Know your audience (and what matters to them)

The next time you need to communicate, ask yourself why you are uniquely qualified to be the audience’s guide. Identify stories from when you were on a similar journey, encountered comparable roadblocks, and emerged transformed — and muster the courage to share them.

Telling a personal story from a place of conviction is the most powerful communication device you have. That’s what the greatest and most beloved communicators do.


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