Storytelling Tips

Use these tips to find, craft, and share your story of service.

Introduction: The Argument for Stories

Why are stories compelling and powerful?

One of the most compelling, heartfelt ways to share your Peace Corps experience is through storytelling. Storytelling is an excellent way to continue your service, show your commitment to the Peace Corps Third Goal, and share the culture you encountered during service in a personal and engaging way. When you tell stories, they humanize and illuminate places and people with a unique, grassroots, Peace Corps perspective and inspire others to serve.

Personal stories are memorable. Evidence suggests we are hard-wired to receive and learn information better in story form. Stories are powerful. Stories combat stereotypes. As the eloquent Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie put it in her famous TED Talk: The Danger of a Single Story:

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

As Returned Volunteers, it is our responsibility to bring these stories home. Whether for select friends and family, or large virtual or in-person audiences, telling stories embodies the spirit of the Peace Corps Third Goal.


Watch our Storytelling Tips & Tools video to gain insight on how to hone and craft your Peace Corps story. Follow along in the sections below: Finding your story, crafting your story, and sharing your story. By: Meleia Rose, 2016

Finding Your Story

Use these helpful brainstorming exercises to discover your story.

How daunting it is to summarize your Peace Corps experiences in a 5-10 minute story! Don’t think of this story as a summary of your Peace Corps service, but as a window giving specific insight into your host culture or your experience. This story is just one way of communicating your Peace Corps country or experience; don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

Below are a few exercises to help you brainstorm ideas that you might tell from your experience:

  • For two minutes sit down and list all the people you met in Peace Corps. Now try another two minutes, this time listing all the places you went in Peace Corps including specifics like Fred’s porch, George’s barn, and Maria’s farm. After you are done with your lists, review them and circle places or people you think could be elements of a good story.
  • Try brainstorming some lists that relate to a selected theme. For example, if the theme is “cultural arrival”, try making a list of cultural surprises. Other potential them include: “Why I joined the Peace Corps”, “my local inspiration”, “host country heroes”, and “neighbors”.
  • You might try using certain words as prods for stories. For example, tell a story about the word “almost” or the phrase “that is when I knew I had truly arrived.”
  • One key in finding your story is to think about the deeper meaning in addition to the entertainment value. There is action: who, what, where, and when, but make sure you know the important deeper meaning of why that gives the story meaning and importance.

Crafting Your Story

Remember the story arc, learn the “rules” and elements of a good story, and practice with the story spine!

The Story Arc

Most people learned some version of the story arc in school. This is a little refresher to help you think about your Peace Corps stories:

Content, Action/problem, Climax, Falling action/resolution

*Please note this story arc assumes a 7-8 min story. The arc should be adjusted proportionally for longer or shorter stories.


Elements of a Good Story:

Plot-

1. Context: When and where is the story taking place?

2. Action: What happens in the story?

3. Tension: Raise the stakes.

4. Change: It is not really a story unless something fundamentally changes.

5. Closure: Do you deliver on your promise after setting up a central question?

Other Elements-

1. Meaning: What is my story really about?

2. Senses: If people can picture it, then they can better relate.

4. Insight: Let your listeners in on your thoughts, feelings, and in-the-moment reactions.

5. Characters: Keep them compelling and few.

    • Try to use dialogue to help bring each character to life.
    • In an oral story your audience only has so much memory capacity.

Rules of Good Storytelling

  1. Allow yourself to be vulnerable: Trust the audience with information about yourself, and remain humble, personal, and intimate.
  2. Use dialogue: Move the plot forward with dialogue to develop characters and make it fun. If possible, do not be afraid to try to take on a character.
  3. Show. Don’t tell: Instead of saying, “my students were amazing,” let them hear an amazing quote from a student.
  4. Be specific: “Breakfast was good.” vs. “My Fruit Loops and toast hit the spot.”
  5. Find a way to frame your story: Find the context of why you are telling the story. This relates to what your story is really about.
  6. Use the rule of threes: This principle suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other number groups. A series of three often creates a progression in which the tension is created, built up, and finally released.
  7. Get the audience on your side: If they like you, they will be much more open and attentive to your story. One way to impress them is to throw in a bit of translated local language. This will also transport them and teach them something about the country. It will make them hear your Peace Corps country.
  8. Have perspective on the story: There is no crying in storytelling. If the story is still too close to you, it is not ready for an audience.

Story Spine

Another helpful way to think about your story is to see how your story fits into “The Story Spine.” Try filling out the story spine below with key moments in your story:

Once Upon a Time _________________

And every day, _________________

Until one day, _________________

Because of that _________________

And then _________________

And then _________________

Until finally/then suddenly _________________

And the funny thing was _________________

Ever since then _________________


Sharing Your Story

Some helpful tips when telling or performing your story

These tips are flexible. They can work for small audiences or storytelling performances, such as open mic nights, Returned Volunteer Story Slams, classrooms, etc. They can also work one-on-one. It is up to you to determine how to adopt them for your audience’s size, age, and interest.

Most of these tips are aimed at larger audiences, but telling stories to small groups of friends and family, or just one interested person, has a Third Goal impact too. If someone is interested in your Peace Corps experience, you can offer a story as a way to share with structure. Remember to gauge interest before jumping in; it is important not to overwhelm your listener.

Story performance tips:

Voice: Use your authentic voice.

Body: Ground yourself.

Delivery: Pace yourself.

Practice makes perfect!

Final tips

*All content on finding, crafting, and telling your story was adapted with permission from SpeakeasyDC’s Storytelling 101 class.


Appendix 1: Practicing Your Story

Step 1: The Teller shares their story uninterrupted with a timer to see how long the story runs.

Step 2: The Listener gives positive feedback on what they liked about the story.

Step 3: The Teller asks the Listener for feedback on specific elements of the story or delivery, allowing the Teller to identify specific concerns they see in their story first.

Step 4: The Listener asks clarifying questions like, “I didn’t really understand “X”,’ or “I wanted to hear more about “Y”. The Listener asks questions that pull out more details and to understand the Teller’s intent.

Step 5: The Listener shares final thoughts and feedback if invited by the Teller. This is not the time for the Listener to reconstruct the story for the Teller based on style and interests. The focus should be on basic story elements and structure. Avoid feedback like “what you should say is…”

Questions for the Teller to ask themselves:

Questions for the Listener to ask themselves:

    • Did I get confused anywhere in the story?
    • What was I interested in hearing more about? Less about?
    • Was I drawn into the story? If so, was I drawn in immediately or was there a specific point where I became interested?
    • Did I want to know what happened next?
    • How well do I feel I got to know the main characters through the story?
    • Could I relate to the main characters?
    • What is this story about?