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Talking Point: Do you believe in the magic of storytelling?

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12th Sep 2012
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Memorable speakers and inspiring leaders tend to be great storytellers.

If you listen to them presenting, they have one key aspect in common – they all use stories to illustrate their main points.   Have you ever sat at a conference listening to someone bombard you with facts and figures, confusing industry jargon and tired old motivational quotes as they read, word-for-word, what is displayed behind them on a PowerPoint screen?   Have you ever been to a business event and a few days later struggled to remember even one thing that the presenters were talking about? Or have you ever been present at a workforce address in which the workforce concerned remained completely unmoved by what was said?   Alternatively, think of the times that you have listened to a presenter make a magic connection with their audience, carrying people along so that no-one wanted to miss a second and ensuring that they remembered the key messages long after the presentation had finished.  Appealing to left and right  Chances are that on such occasions, the speaker will have used stories to illustrate their main messages. The point is that people not only love listening to a story but will also always remember a well-told one.   And they can be used in most presentations, even if the topic may at first appear dull, dry and dusty. They can also be employed in sales pitches, employee addresses, management meetings, team briefings, radio and TV interviews and even job interviews.   But why is it that stories work so well and why do people tend to remember them? Stories are part of the fabric of humanity – we’ve heard and have loved being drawn into them since childhood.   People enjoy hearing about dramatic situations and others overcoming problems and difficulties as well as achieving victories and successes. We love to have our imaginations stimulated and our emotions played to. And it’s gratifying to learn at the same time as we are being entertained.   But stories also work because they appeal to both the left and right sides of our brain. Our right side - the creative side - is stimulated by the drama and the characters of a tale, while the left side - the logical side – is looking for structure, a beginning, middle and end.   But because some people feel a bit nervous about telling stories in their presentation, here are some very simple tips to help:   1. Ensure that your story is pertinent   Make sure that your story is relevant to the message that you are trying to get across to your audience.   For example, if the main purpose of your presentation is to talk about the employment opportunities that your company offers to young people, you could recount a rousing success story of an under 25-year-old who has progressed through the ranks.   So you could share, in story form, just how this employee overcame the lack of opportunities on the market in order to start achieving their ambitions.     2. Always include conflict   Remember to keep your story simple and easy for the audience to follow. But do always include some form of conflict, whether it is explicitly mentioned or implied (conflict in the above example would be the lack of employment opportunities on the market).   Conflict refers to a situation in which a problem or difficulty has to be overcome and it adds human interest for the audience. If you do not include it, you are just recounting an uninspiring sequence of events.   3. Paint a picture with words   The most effective stories draw the audience in by making them feel as if they are actually there, in with the action. This can be achieved through subtly using words that appeal to the senses and by painting a picture to illustrate your point. Do try to ensure that your language conforms with the overall style of your presentation, however, and be careful not to make it sound artificial.     4. Live out the story   When delivering your story, remember that you are re-creating an event for the audience, not simply telling it. As a result, try to ‘live out’ the story. Use the full gamut of vocal variety and body language to make your story come to life. Also dare to be different.   5. Prepare thoroughly   My final tip would be to prepare thoroughly – if you fail to prepare, you will prepare to fail. This means that you need to practice and rehearse your story intensively so that you can deliver it effortlessly and ensure that it fits in naturally with your other content. Personal stories based on your own experiences will always be effective though as you already know them inside out.   Although there are no clear-cut ‘rules’ for either storytelling or public speaking (if we all followed exactly the same criteria and employed the same style, you might as well wheel robots out onto the speaking platform), there are certain areas to watch out for:  

  • Ensure that your story is relevant and appropriate to your overall message and doesn’t jar
  • Be aware of over-complicating things with too convoluted a plot and too many characters
  • Don’t make the content gushing
  • Remember the important message about preparation.

  While all of this may seem daunting, it will be worth the effort. The good thing is that, by just including a story or two within your presentation, your message will stand a far greater chance of being heard and remembered than if you simply stick to the same old bland content. 

Andrew Brammer is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for profit organisation that comprises a network of clubs to teach public speaking and leadership skills.

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