Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Storytelling – How you can learn to ‘bore no more’.

The most common  piece of advice around for public speakers and presenters seems to be ‘tell a story’.  ‘People love stories’ we’re told.  Well, yes, you should and they do. But (as anyone who has longed for a fire alarm to put an end to a boring  presentation knows), storytelling is a skill, and all stories are not worth listening to.

To be good presenter you do need to tell good stories. So here is how to start developing those skills. Master them  – and you will bore no more!

In many cases,  ‘locating’ the story is the first big challenge. Let’s say  you’re addressing your annual general meeting,  or reporting on the company finances, or presenting your research.  The tendancy is  often to describe what you did, step by step, concluding with the results or current position.  That’s not storytelling. Storytelling demands you to decide what goes in and what gets edited out; it demands you make the listener feel interested, moved, excited and – in the end, changed in some way. It’s especially important in data-rich or statistically based presentations that you can find the story behind the numbers.

“But HOW?” I hear you ask. “What IS the story?”

Screenwriters talk about  ‘the story arc’. It’s the plot architecture, and it’s why you know the chase scene means the end of the movie is near, or that if the hero is in a cave with his enemy, either the rescue party is about to turn up or someone is going to die. There’s a familiar framework underlying the narrative. We know where we’re going because we’ve been on similar journeys in thousands of other stories before. We sense the tension building and releasing, driving toward a climax  we unconsciously know to be there. A speech must do the same thing.

Because we easily recognize the patterns behind stories , using them is  a short cut to hooking your listeners in. A  logical, coherent pattern that is familiar will get the listener easily on board and taken them from one episode to the next, maintaining their interest, and leading where  you want them to go.

Nick Morgan, who writes about public speaking for Forbes Magazine says this:

“Our minds remember stories, especially stories with emotions attached, much better than they remember lists, or even ideas. Our brains are constructed that way; something happens to us, and it hurts, or feels good, or moves us, or makes us deliriously happy, and so we remember it. Events stick. The emotions associated with them make them stick. Facts, lists, ideas, theories, and so on do not.

So, yes, it’s worth it to turn a presentation into a story, because you’ll greatly increase the chances that people remember what you say. A CEO who gives us a rational argument for increasing profits, backed up with all sorts of numbers, is liable to put us to sleep. He certainly is not likely to get us to put extra effort into the workday to make those profits happen. If, on the other hand, he links our efforts (somehow) to finding the Holy Grail, or beating the Evil Empire, or winning one for the Gipper, we’re far more likely to remember – and act – upon what he’s saying.

What’s my plot?

To figure out what you story is, ask yourself three questions:

  • What is most important/special/memorable about this issue/topic/occasion?
  • What is the main thing that the others attending should know, feel or understand?
  • What should happen as a result of my talk?

To get to the bottom of the first question, think about your own response to the issue or occasion, the data, results, experience…whatever it is.  Ask yourself what YOU realised, were moved by or interested in. Think back to when this material was new to you too.

  • What surprised or interested you most ? Why?
  • What do you understand now that you didn’t before?
  • Is there a new or unexpected element that leads to your point of view?
  • Were there any lightbulb moments or revealing episodes or issues that stick in your mind? These can liven a speech up and focus attention – they are good sources of the stories that you’ll need to keep people interested.
  • Pretend you were talking about it to a friend. What would you tell them?  What would they ask you?

The next step is to thread these insights into a narrative. You have to decide what structure best suits your material, and the occasion. You can find some basic speech templates here on this blog. To widen your repertoire though, familiarise with yourself with the five basic stories in Western culture, which are explained more fully here by Nick Morgan.

  • Quest
  • Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Rags to Riches
  • Revenge
  • Love Story

When you understand the ways these stories work you will get ideas about shaping your own presentations. For even more background, I recommend    7 Secret advantages of the Storytelling Speaker, and  How to Weave Statistics into Your Speech.



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This entry was posted on 01/11/2012 by in Conference presentations, Preparing a speech, Presenting a speech, Public speaking and tagged .

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