Score better in speaking by using present tense while telling stories

In speaking exams you may have to tell a story that you make up or a true story about something that happened to you. This is sometimes called a personal anecdote and the tense used is called narrative tense.


  • Take time to think about the question and the story before you start talking.
  • Use narrative tenses – past simple, past continuous and past perfect.
  • Use adjectives and adverbs to make the story interesting.
  • Use sequencing words: first of all, then, after that, later on, finally, in the end
  • Give your story an introduction. Say briefly what your story is about.
  • Give the background to your story. Say when and where it took place and what you were doing at that time.
  • Say what happened step by step. Use words like so, because and although to connect the actions until you reach the end of the story.
  • Keep the action moving!
  • Finish your story or anecdote by saying why it is important to you or why you remember it.
  • Look at your listeners.


  • Take too long telling the story or your listeners will get bored.
  • Use a flat or bored voice.
  • Look down or look around the room.

Structure your story

Wrapping up

When telling a joke, a story or relating an anecdote something strange can happen to English grammar. In this programme we hear how and why present verb forms can be used to talk about past actions.

Telling a story
Read these two versions of the same event. Compare the differences.
Both versions are correct. The alternative version is a natural way in spoken English of telling a story/joke or relating an anecdote.Original versionI was in the cinema and I was watching a film and half way through the person next to me, their mobile phone rang and this person answered it and began to have a conversation. And lots of people were looking round and tutting and then the manager came in and he told me to leave. He thought it’d been me on the phone. So I had to go out and explain to him that it hadn’t been me, it’d been the man next to me. He apologised and because of the inconvenience he gave me some free tickets. And so actually it was OK because I hadn’t really been enjoying the film anyway.
Alternative version
Well, last night I’m in the cinema, watching this film and half way through the person next to me, their mobile phone starts ringing. He answers it and he begins to have this conversation. And lots of people are turning round and they’re looking and tutting and then in comes the manager and tells me to leave. He thinks it was me on the phone. So I have to go out and explain to him that it wasn’t me, it was the man next to me. And he apologises and because of the inconvenience he gives me some free tickets. And actually that was OK because I wasn’t really enjoying the film anyway.
Telling a story – some features
Verb forms
Compare the verb forms between the original and the alternative version:
  • past simple becomes present simple
  • past continuous becomes present continuous
  • past perfect becomes past simple

Word order
Compare the word order of phrasal verbs between the original and the alternative version:

  • “… the manager came in …” becomes ” … in comes the manager …

Notice this tense mix:-
It was almost 5 a.m. He hadn’t come home yet, and his phone was off. I’d been so worried that couldn’t sleep at all. Then I heard the door knocked fiercely. Of course it’s him. He’s got a bottle of whisky in his hand and smelt like a tramp. He stumbles in, ignoring me at all. I was like, stopping him, asking where he’s been. He suddenly turns around, shouts at me, pushing me crazily out of my flat and locks me out. I am totally petrified. I’ve never seen him like that. That’s why I asked you if I could come here.
This is also in practice.
Source: Many

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