Presentations: The Power of Storytelling: Speaking
True story. It happened to me while diving through the sky at 35,000 feet.
The F-15 pilot asked me matter-of-factly, “Do you see him?” I twisted to look as far over my left shoulder as the 25-pound helmet and oxygen mask would allow. “No I don’t,” I shouted. I snapped my head to check to the right. “There! I’ve got him!” Just 100 yards back, hovering like a giant bird prey, the other jet fighter bore down. The “enemy” seemed tied to us on an invisible tether that we could not cut. Our swooping and plunging could not shake him. As I watched him over my right shoulder, I knew a few more seconds in his sights and we would be “dead.” Suddenly, without warning, my pilot slammed the stick hard left to snap roll us out of harm’s way. Unfortunately for me, the sudden turn and acceleration pressed my helmet-heavy head backward and pinning my cheek against the back of my seat. I could not budge! “This is not good,” I thought. “I am in a fighter tail-chase and can’t lift my own head to face forward.” For about 10 seconds I strained to get upright without success. Suddenly, the pilot eased the hard turn and the g-forces eased slightly. My head popped erect. Too late. Drained by the exertion I had the overpowering urge to vomit. 35 minutes of pinwheeling through the clouds had battered my equilibrium.
“I’m having a bit of a problem here,” I mumbled to the pilot. “A problem?” “Yes, I’m feeling a little sick.” “Sick?” “Yes.!” “Okay, two knock it off,” he radioed the jet behind. “Two, knock it off,” the pursuer echoed. Immediately both broke off the wargame, leveled their wings, and settled my stomach just seconds before my own dive into the barf bag would have been necessary. “I made it,” I thought. “I’ve got my F-15 story and my lunch.”
Sometimes you take challenges you have no stomach for… to achieve experiences you’ve never had before.
I begin with that anecdote from my journalism days to illustrate the power of story telling. Ideally, that yarn pulls you into a column you might have skipped, and makes it more memorable. The same holds true for presentations and speeches. Well-told tales are often listenable linchpins on which you hang more abstract ideas. The clever story makes it easier to recall the less accessible point.
Stories, however, are sometimes an end unto themselves.
Sometimes good stories are sufficient
I heard 4 speeches in 2 weeks recently. One by a professional, and three by amateurs. The pro was spectacular, and the amateurs were good. Two of the amateurs related charming life experiences while the third unraveled major mishaps of the Civil War. The pro let loose a fusillade of humor. All told stories with few serious messages, and all held their audiences’ attention.
Sometimes good stories work all by themselves. Rather than lead the listener to an important idea, they simply entertain and inform on their own. That sure beats a boring speech about information with little apparent relevance to audience. The three amateurs appeared at civic clubs and I am sure their listeners appreciated the yarn-spinning.
Practically-speaking, however, for most of us the stories in our presentations must facilitate our delivery of important information that we hope will be meaningful to those before us.
Ah, but where do you find those stories?
The “professional” speaker mentioned above is master humorist Jeanne Robertson from Alamance County. The elegantly tall (she makes much of her six-foot-two-ness) former Miss North Carolina and Miss America contestant is on the road 23 days a month tickling funny bones from here to Hawaii. Her excellence has earned the National Speakers Association’s highest awards, and Toastmasters International’s Golden Gavel (previous winners include Art Linkletter, Walter Cronkite, and Joyce Brothers). At a recent Toastmasters’ conference she sprinkled some important story-telling tips amidst her own fabulous stories. These tips and more come are in her brand-new book Don’t Let the Funny Stuff Get Away.
First, find a good story in your own life.
Jeanne says we presenters often make the mistake of deciding what the important point is first, and then look for an anecdote to illustrate it second. Wrong, says Jeanne. Do it in reverse. Look for the good story first. Where? Life experiences are her favorite choice. Look into your own past for adventures that can be crafted into exciting or humorous experiences for others. Although that will be more time-consuming initially, your life experiences are unique and Jeanne says they will 1) give you an identity, 2) allow you to speak with firsthand knowledge, 3) lower the chance the audience has heard the material, and 4) give you a never-ending supply of material.
Remember that the story needs to be a good one that you have tested, refined, and rehearsed. Jeanne says because presenters so often want to make an important point, they will settle for a mediocre story that illustrates the point. She says it is more important that the story be effective by itself. Worry about the point of it later.
So, once you find and develop a good story, then what?
Tailor the story to the point.
Jeanne says find a way to link that good story to your point. She says that if you think about it, you can almost always find a way to connect the story to the purpose of your presentation. For example, for 15 years I have told the story of my encountering Jacqueline Onassis and being too dumbstruck to think of a decent question to ask her. Regardless of my topic, I have been able to bend that tale of personal embarrassment to suit the material. You can do that with a good story.
Look for stories and use them. They will make you and your information more memorable, and – wonderfully – if you don’t have anything earth-shattering to say, your stories will at least be interesting and, if you’re good, entertaining.