I’ve been to five talks recently that didn’t use a single story in their delivery. Don’t get me wrong, overall they were great talks – they were packed with statistics, government websites, and text-heavy slides that all proved the importance of the topic to the audience. But I couldn’t help wishing that each speaker had told a story or two to make it easier to connect with and understand the material at a deeper level.
We’re story-driven creatures, and an over-emphasis on statistics and other “hard” data can be overwhelming and hard to remember. This isn’t the fault of the presenters, either: nobody teaches us how to effectively use stories in our speaking.
In this episode, I talk about the three steps you can take to select and include a great story in your presentation, no matter what kind of context you’re speaking in. We’ll go over how to choose a story that will resonate with your audience and the essential elements of a compelling story, and I’ll touch on why we are often scared to include stories in our speaking.
By the way, I’m running a giveaway for my listeners! I’m offering some of my favorite books – Resonate by Nancy Duarte, Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, and Brain Rules by John Medina – as well as some of my favorite candle and notebook sets. All you have to do to enter is head over to the Speak So It Matters page on iTunes, leave a review, and send a screenshot of your review to me at email@example.com.
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What You’ll Learn from this Episode:
- Why we are often afraid to tell stories in a speaking context, even though they are incredibly powerful.
- Questions you should ask yourself to get to know your audience.
- How to tell your story with purpose and best storytelling practices.
- Why you don’t have to tell your story in a typical format – rising action, climax, and new normal – in order for it to resonate.
- The essential elements of a great story.
- Why you have to keep your stories relevant, concise, and close to the action of your audience’s lives.
Listen to the Full Episode:
Featured on the Show:
- Download Beyond Applause: Make a Meaningful Difference through Transformational Speaking for free and gain access to a four-part course on becoming a thought leader in your industry.
- I’ve collected all of the amazing free resources I offer for you, my dear listener, over at speaksoitmatters.com/podcastlove. Check it out!
- If I should have a daughter… TED Talk by Sarah Kay
- Ep #6: How to Share Your Personal Story in a Way that Serves
- The Moth Podcast
Full Episode Transcript:
You are listening to the Speak So It Matters podcast, episode number 42.
Welcome to Speak So It Matters , where we share a mix of stories of inspiration and super practical public speaking and communication guidance to help you release all the barriers to becoming the speaker you know you’re meant to be. Some of us are called to use our voice to serve others and our world as well as to become the most fully-expressed version of ourselves. If that’s you, you’ve landed in the right place. Let’s do this, my friends.
Hello, my speaker friends. I am a bit on fire today. I can’t wait to dive in with you on this one. We are going to talk about why, oh, why you must use stories to engage your audience. I’m going to share with you examples from the way, way too many talks I’ve been to lately that have missed out on this powerful opportunity to create a connection between them as the speaker and their beautiful, beautiful audience.
First, speaking of amazing storytelling in a totally gorgeous form, I want to highlight and point you toward a TED Talk I recently saw. Again, I have seen it before, but my daughter came home from school with this recommendation, and it just reminded me how amazing this talk is. It’s called If I Should Have a Daughter by Sarah Kay. She uses spoken word poetry to light up the room with hope and deep thoughtfulness about the power of poetry and just incredible description everywhere.
She begins, “If I should have a daughter, instead of Mom, she’s going to call me Point B because that way she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me, and I’m going to paint solar systems on the backs of her hands so she has to learn the entire universe before she can say, ‘Oh, I know that like the back of my hand.'”
I want you to watch this talk because it’s a stunning celebration of the English language, an inspiration for ways we can string words together, and her delivery style is so fun, way better than I just said it. I wanted you to just hear some of the words she strings together, but the way she does it is so beautiful. When you watch her, she moves her hand, she’s like acting out the parts of the poetry and of her talk, not overemphasizing. There’s not this overacting feel. It’s just enough to amplify her message like she is her amplifying aid.
She tells some really good stories in there too. She tells one that starts, “When I was a freshman in high school, I was a live wire of nervous hormones.” Who doesn’t know what she means, even if our hormones made us want to sleep until noon when we were at that age, just taking us back into high school. When we start a story, something changes inside our audience. A story’s such a powerful connection tool. It has this magical syncing up power that no other form of communication has, and yet, and this is why I’m fired up today, I’ve attended at least five, and probably more than this if I were to really count, community education events from nonprofit organizations, school events at a variety of schools, and just other venues, and at every single one of them, I found myself nearly leaping out of my chair, wanting to say, “Tell us a story.”
There was amazing evidence in these talks to the problem. There were statistics, government websites, jampacked slides with all kinds of proof that we have real problems, real problems around drugs and alcohol, real problems in use. We have addictive use. We have all the way from vaping to harder drugs. We were having conversations about sex, just all kinds of different things, and there was evidence and evidence and evidence, descriptions, explanations, and full detail about every issue, problem, thing we needed to help solve, but I couldn’t feel the problem in my heart, and I couldn’t connect to the possibilities and hope because there just wasn’t enough story to create that magical connection.
But here’s the thing. It’s not their fault because no one teaches us how to use story effectively in our speaking, which is why we’re going to dive into this today right now so that the next time you rise up to help your kids at your school, your favorite nonprofit, or you want to deliver a talk on behalf of your business, your message, your mission that inspires people to pay you money for your services or donate to your cause, you know how to tell a good story, when to tell a good story, and why it’s important to tell a good story in your presentation. You ready? Let’s dive in.
The path is actually pretty simple, and I don’t think it’ll surprise you when you hear it. You gotta know your audience, every time I say this, and really, what they most want. You have to do that so that you know what kind of story that you’re going to tell. Now, of course, all of this, I’m going to step back for just a second, preceded by that is the decision, the knowledge, the recognition that it is essential that you tell stories, that you buy into the truth that, the fact, that you buy into the fact that story is our most powerful way of communicating that creates a heartfelt connection and can also create a logical connection. It’s magical in that way. We often are speaking to one or the other, a person’s logic or a person’s strong emotion, and there often is a strong emotional pull to story, but the cool thing about a well-told story is it can do both.
But in order to do that, first you have to know your audience really well and what they want most so you can choose the right story and tell it in the right way. Then you need to choose a story that will resonate for this audience in their heart, in their mind, in their soul. Then you want to tell that story with purpose and best practices.
Let’s dive into each of these a little bit further. Of course, as I say over and over, and I know you know this, you’ve got to know your audience and really dive deep. Who are they? What do they care about? I walked into this school auditorium out of the pouring rain for this talk. There were about 50 seats set up and maybe 10 people in the room, and they were scattered all throughout the room so it looked as empty as possible.
Now, more people did trickle in over time, but already, it was kind of feeling low energy in the room, and you could feel that too from the presenters. I had the sense they were disappointed. It was a really stormy night, so many people who probably thought they were going to come out decided not to. The lights were as bad as they are often in these school buildings, so just understanding that these are the circumstances in which you’re going to be speaking.
We were going to talk about the dangers of vaping and marijuana in the lives of our kids. Our presenters were experienced, they’re loving, and they’re super passionate, and they knew what they were talking about. They gave us a serious education. I had never seen a vaping jewel before, for example. They showed them. Super well done. That was engaging. I was like, “Oh, my gosh. My brain lights up seeing those.” We do love an image, and this was a 3D item I could touch. They had screens full of statistics, and statistics that really blew my mind. They did, the slides had too much on them, this is very often the case, but at least they called out verbally the ones that really mattered to this particular audience.
Something like 30% of juniors in high school had vaped in the last 30 days. I’m not sure if I have that exactly right, but it was something like that, which indicates possibly a somewhat regular habit. I was really surprised. 30%’s really high, especially considering, I don’t know, when I think about smoking and how it’s kind of similar to that and we had pretty much totally stopped smoking, but here we are, 30%, but they told virtually no stories. In fact, parents were asking questions, questions like, “How do kids get this stuff? It’s illegal. Where are they getting it from?” Still, it just didn’t come to mind to tell stories. Again, not their fault. This is not about me giving a hard time to these beautiful, big-hearted, really brilliant, in so many ways, people who were devoted to making a difference. I just want to call out the power of telling a story.
We had one parent ask the question, like, “Where are the kids getting this?” and there were a bunch of examples shared, like, “Oh, they get them online,” or, “They know which kids to ask,” but how powerful would it have been to say, “There was a junior at another high school who purchased his supplies at Amazon,” for example. “He’d post those supplies on his Snapchat channel when he had a full supply in stock, and then kids were private message him their requests. There’s an example of how kids are getting theirs.” You see how that very quick story creates a whole picture in the minds of the parents, and then they know what kinds of things to watch for, right, “Oh, maybe I should be checking Snapchat, just see what’s going on there for my kids.”
I attended a lovely presentation on having conversations with our kids about sex and some about drugs as well, just these difficult, sticky conversations, and then another one about how to help our kids move through conflict more effectively. Those are just some of the other ones I’ve been too. In all cases, the stories were missing.
Again, they’re all done similarly in that there was a big focus on statistics, and the statistics are interesting, especially when they’re really big and powerful. The problem with that, especially when you get a lot of that content at once, is it gets overwhelming. We can’t remember. I’m thinking, was it 30% of juniors, and was it vaping or was it marijuana? Then I’m like, no, it couldn’t have been marijuana. When we actually filter down to just those things relevant to this particular audience, which is not what I’m talking about right now, I’m talking about story, but filter down our content to an audience, and then choose stories that really emphasize that content, we are far more likely to help that audience remember that content and use it.
I think the reason that we don’t tell stories in our speaking as often is that we’re afraid. We’re afraid we don’t know how to tell a story in this particular context. I think that’s one reason. I think another reason is that it’s just not done very often, so we don’t see examples of how it’s done. I know from having spoken to hundreds, thousands at this point, of people who speak to audiences, they’re afraid that if they start to tell a story, the audience is going to click off because they’ll think it’s not relevant. It’s interesting how we actually have this idea that storytelling belongs in other places besides meaningful, impactful communication like these kinds of presentation. The opposite is true.
The first most important thing, as usual, is know who your audience is. I’m sorry if you feel like I’m a broken record. It’s only because your audience is pretty much everything once, of course, you know what topic you’re going to cover.
Here are some of the questions that you’ve heard me say before, but just to remind you, what does their life look like right now? Describe the scene. Just dive in. What is the issue within your topic area that’s most on their mind? What stories do you have that would speak directly to that issue? Make yourself a list of stories to draw from, thinking about that audience. Then, of course, you’re going to choose a story that will resonate for them in their heart, mind, and soul. Let’s talk a little bit more about that, choosing a story that will resonate for this particular audience.
You want to choose the ones that most reflect their experience. If you’ve got a room full of middle schooler parents, search for your middle schooler parent stories. For example, we visited a middle school last year, and one of the students came up to me afterward holding a jewel vaping device. She had picked it up in the parking lot at school and thought it looked cool, so she kept it, having no idea that it was. “That it looked cool” is what freaks us out. There’s an example of a super quick story that would just bring to life a scenario in the audience’s minds while you’re talking about vaping, for example.
If the people in your audience are trying to build businesses, look for stories that show them you understand that process of building a business and that you have some stories of inspiration to share. Shayla, a founder I worked with last year on her fundraising campaign, came to me absolutely depleted from working so hard to raise enough funds to keep the lights on. She had built her nonprofit on a grant she received for the first five years, and it was unexpected unavailable suddenly. It was only after digging deep on her story and the story behind her organization that fundraising started to gain a life of its own. There’s an example of instead of just explaining the concept of building a business and how important story is, there’s an example story of Shayla.
Let’s talk about a distinction in choosing stories based on your audience. Let’s say that you’ve been invited in to speak at a company’s annual all-hands gathering. You probably want to leave out the stories about your happy clients who quit their jobs at companies like the ones you’re speaking at and finally found ease and freedom in entrepreneurship, for example. Instead, you want to tell stories that the leaders of this company who are probably paying you to come in and speak will be thrilled to have you share because it reinforces what they care about but that also inspires the people who work inside the company.
For example, you could say, “Chad came to me, ready to quit his job. He’d escalated his complaints as far up the leadership chain as he could and found no measurable help with his incredible overload of work. After we spent some time assessing his strengths, values, and the priorities of his current role, he was able to propose a clear solution to the problem that only required a yes or no from his leaders. To his absolute surprise, he got a resounding yes. The only reason that they hadn’t given him that before and helped him relieve is overload is that they couldn’t figure out what to do about it either until he came forth with a clear, proposed solution.”
There are some examples of how you choose stories based on the audience and your goal for your talk. Now, let’s talk a little bit more deeply about how to tell your story with purpose and best practices. I’ve done other podcasts on how to tell your personal story, for example. We’ll link to that in the show notes. I may have one other one that I’ve done, if I can think of it, we’ll put it in the show notes, where I’ve talked about how to tell a story. I’m going to do a high-level overview here just so you have it all and this one podcast episode.
But telling your story with purpose and best practices is the way to make that storytelling effective, no matter what the context or the content. A story works when you use these best practices for the particular circumstance. You’ve probably seen the plot diagram, for example, or, I don’t know, some people call it elements of a story, essentially where they have the exposition, the setting of the scene, and you see drawings of this. There’s a small line in the bottom-left corner. Then there’s a big line upward, rising action. This is where the problem or the situation worsens, and then there’s a peek at the top, the climax. This is the turning point in the story. Then there’s this deep decline down the other side, falling action, things are getting better after this climax. Then you have another line going off to the right that’s a little higher up because there’s a new normal, and that’s called the resolution, the new better normal.
Anyway, that’s just a description of what the pot diagram looks like. You’ve probably seen that. Many people think that you have to use that kind of plot diagram in order to tell a good story in business or in any of these contexts, but that’s not necessarily true. The truth is, you may or may not have the time and attention from your audience to do a full lead-up, a climax, a resolution. In fact, you might have people going, “Where is this going?” Let’s talk about what really matters. Here are the essential elements.
The characters need to resonate. Are they like us, as your audience, and are they relevant to this topic? Telling a story about a newly graduated college kid’s struggle at work while you’re talking about the work-life balance of working parents just isn’t going to ring powerful. It’s too distant. Find an example, tell a story about characters that are experiencing something similar in their own life so that the audience just really naturally gets into the shoes of the people in your story.
The problem in the story needs to be related to the problem in the talk, the conversation, whatever the context is. For example, don’t tell me a story about how you learned how to skate while you’re talking to me about productivity unless somehow you’re making a super quick analogy that I can’t even imagine. They’re too far. I’m over there watching you skate around the rink, and then all of a sudden, I’m trying to be productive in my office. It’s too far of a distance. That’s when you actually confuse things by telling a story. Your audience’s brain doesn’t have the capacity to process it right then. They’re not going to take the time. They’ll just tune out instead.
On that note, your point has to be crystal clear. Clarity over cleverness, always. Business storytelling isn’t the same as storytelling for entertainment, though there is some crossover. I mean, one of my favorite podcast to listen to is The Moth. I love it. It’s so awesome. It’s a storytelling podcast. I learned how to tell better stories there. I’m fascinated by the stories in these people’s lives. There are absolutely lessons in these stories, but pretty much under all or almost all circumstances, you don’t have that kind of time to make your point and to tell that kind of a gorgeous story, that you really should go listen to The Moth because it is so awesome.
In business storytelling, you really want to keep it more concise. You want to keep it focused on characters that immediately resonate and a problem in the story that’s related to the problem in the talk that you’re sharing. Now, there are some circumstances where you may want to use a full story to make the whole point. Maybe you’re showing a process and you’re using a story to show that process, but if you’re going to do that, you probably want to let us know what you’re up to, especially, again, thinking about a lot of business environments in which I have trained and worked with clients where, immediately, as soon as you start to tell a story, your audience is likely to think, “Where is this going?” You might want to say, “I’m going to tell you a story. I promise it will make my point better than any other way of explaining this, and I promise it’ll be quick.” Don’t feel bad setting it up in that way if you think culturally that’s necessary in your organization.
A place where longer story is where you’re going to use the elements of a story or the plot diagram in more fullness is inspirational meetings, all-hands events, other venues where a story can provide that kind of build-up and that resonance for that longer rising action section, that climax point that feels so clear and relevant to the lives of the people in the audience, and then that beautiful inspirational new normal, that new wonderful, new bliss, as Nancy Duarte calls it, that they have to look forward.
Here’s the other thing. Whether you decide to tell quick stories throughout the talk the way I’ve described, which is a really powerful addition to your current speaking or you’re going to learn how to weave your point into a longer story, either way, don’t forget your call-to-action. If in fact, you do want my money, which is what I believe I’m going to call this podcast, You Want My Money? Tell Me a Story. If you do in fact want my money either as a donation or because you want to, you think it would be great if we worked together, you think you can really help me, don’t be coy. Don’t be clever. Tell me exactly how I can donate or pay you. If you want me to join your Facebook group where I can learn more from you and possibly you can nurture the relationship so that I could hire you later, anyone in your audience can hire you later, then give us the URL and tell us how our lives will be better when we join that group. Make it really easy. Give us a call-to-action, and help us take that action.
We are storytelling animals. Our brains are wired for story. They light up together in magical synchronicity when a story is told, yet we have so very few examples of great storytelling in business and in our mission-driven work out there in the world, until now, because you will be one of those shining examples indicative of the revolution in business and mission-driven communication that officially begins now.
Actually, I think it’s been in play, but we’re leveling it up now. Are you with me on this? All right, so maybe you already know this, but just in case, I wanted you to know that you can get my whole book right now for free. In my book, I absolutely talk about storytelling. I give you all kinds of resources around how to tell a great story, how to tell your story of transformation if that’s a meaningful part of your speaking out in the world, and you can get my book for free at michellebarryfranco.com/freebook. Inside, you’ll also get access to this resource page that has the only presentation outline you’ll ever need, which I hear over and over again that people use over and over and over again for the rest of their lives, and I love that.
All right, my storytelling friend. That’s what we’ve got for this week. Thank you, as always, for being here. It’s such an honor for me to serve you in this way. Please remember, you were made for this. You know how I know? Because you know. All right, see you here next week.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Speak So It Matters podcast. If what you heard here today was useful, you’ll love the free guide I’ve created for you at speaksoitmatters.com/yes. Not only will you get immediate access to our Power and Grace Speakers tool kit, including the only presentation outline you’ll ever need, but you’ll also receive weekly updates with our best resources as they’re created. I can’t wait to see you out there shining your beautiful light and changing lives with your message.
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