March 23, 2021

Storytelling in English: using narrative tenses

“Storytelling is by far the most underrated skill in Business”

Gary Vaynerchuk

Telling stories should be an essential part of any business English course.

Telling stories and anecdotes can help you to:

  1. Build rapport with potential clients: telling stories and anecdotes about yourself can help to build a connection in any situation
  2. Sell your products or services: telling a story about how your business has helped a customer or client is more compelling than just saying what you do.
  3. Be remembered: in any talk, lecture or pitch, it’s the stories that are told that are remembered.

But how can we tell great stories?

The first step is knowing how to construct a story that is clear and engaging.

So here are 5 ways you can use narrative tenses to tell a great story:

Here’s a story about a person’s journey to work…..

This morning I was late for work.

It started like any other day: I got up, had breakfast and got in my car ready for my half an hour drive to work.  The sun was shining, the birds were singing; it was a good day. Then, as I turned the corner, I saw a huge queue of traffic in front of me. There had been an accident up ahead and the road was closed. There was nothing I could do. After an hour of waiting, the traffic finally started to move and I quickly drove to the carpark near my offices. As I was turning in and looking for a space, it suddenly went dark and began to rain. But it wasn’t just raining, it was pouring! Once I found a space, I searched for my umbrella. but it wasn’t there! I’d taken it out of my car last night. Then, while I was searching for something to keep me dry, I remembered there was a coat in the boot. So, I ran to the boot, opened it and there it was! I threw down the key, quickly put on the coat and closed the door. I was just about to run to my office when I realised, I had locked my key in the boot! I climbed back into the car, feeling tired and deflated, and called my husband to bring the spare key. I was two hours late for work!

What’s the moral of the story? Always bring an umbrella!

Setting the Scene

Here are sentences from the story, which set the scene. They explain what was happening around the main action.

“The sun was shining and the birds were singing.”

“But it wasn’t just raining; it was pouring!”

Use present continuous to explain what is happening around the main action.

Structure:

Subject + was/were ________ ing.

Describing the Main Action

These sentences explain the main action of the story. The actions happen in time order (not at the same time).

“I got up, had breakfast and got in my car.”

“I turned the corner and saw a huge queue of traffic in front of me.”

“I finally reached the carpark near my offices.”

“Once I found a space, I searched for my umbrella.”

“I climbed back into the car and called my wife.”

Use past simple to describe the main action of the story in time order.

Structure:

Subject + past verb

Referring to an Interrupted Action

These examples show actions that were interrupted by the main action.

“As I was turning in and looking for a space, it suddenly went dark and began to rain.”

“While I was searching for something to keep me dry, I remembered there was a coat in the boot.”

Use past continuous for the interrupted action (and past simple for main action).

Structure:

Subject + was/were + _______ing

Note: words like ‘as’ and ‘while’ show that the two actions happened at the same time.

Referring to a Past Action

These sentences refer to things that happened before the main action of the story.

“There had been an accident and the road was closed.”

“I searched for my umbrella. It wasn’t there! I’d taken it out of my car last night.”

“I was just about to run to my office when I realised, I had locked my key in the boot!”

Use the past perfect tense to refer to actions which happened before the main action. These could happen in the far past OR earlier in the story.

Structure:

Subject + had/’d + past participle

So if you want to build rapport with clients, sell your products or just simply be memorable, tell more stories.

But first, be sure to use the correct narrative tenses to make your stories clear and engaging.

For help with story telling for business, sign up to my 121 or group business English course. As well as helping you to tell more engaging stories to promote your business, I will help you to communicate more confidently and effectively in all business contexts. Book a free no-obligation consultation here. 

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