A Good Story Makes For a Great Speech

February 21, 2012

Jean Hamilton


Nobody wants to hear numbers, says Chris Elias, former president and CEO of PATH. Numbers are boring. But if you dont use any numbers when speaking to an audience, people wonder if you really know your subject. People are best able to remember numbers when a story is attached.

Hes right. As a businessperson, youve probably heard about the importance of telling stories. They are essential to good communication, whether to a large group, an executive board or a meeting with a potential client. People will forget facts, but they will remember stories. If you want someone to understand a complex subject, tell a story.

Some people have led dramatic lives, surviving near-death experiences, but most of us havent. That doesnt mean you dont have interesting and even motivating stories to tell. Stories are best when you have directly experienced or witnessed them. Even a short conversation can be a great story. Think about difficulties that you or someone you know has overcome. These experiences are potentially powerful material. I once told a client a story about my sons resilience in the face of challenges and it inspired my client to overcome his own challenges. The best stories contain a universal conflict such as fear or doubt, along with a lesson learned.

Often, people work to improve their speaking skills because they want to have greater impact with their audience. Getting things done revolves around the ability to influence others, says Eric Nelson, president and CEO of Enumclaw Insurance Group. It takes stories for people to comprehend what you are saying. When he personalized a speech by telling a story about his high school wrestling competitions, it demonstrated the power of persistence. His audience got it. Nelson says, You have to think, Whats the real message? How can you take things that people might not think are important and get them to care?

An added benefit of starting your speech with a story: If you get nervous in front of an audience, a personal anecdote helps you to relax. Rather than being focused on trying to be the perfect presenter, which increases anxiety, starting with a personal story helps you connect with people. It becomes less about trying to impress the audience, and more about a community experience. And, of course, stories are a great way to bring in humor. Jokes can fall flat, but a funny story usually brings in a laugh.

For your stories to land, delivery is vitally important. When you tell a story, act as if it were happening in the present, with your audience. Bring in dialogue. Use vocal variety. Show the action with your face and body rather than telling it. Keep sentences short. And dont forget to use your most powerful toolthe pause.

Also, reveal specific details. I gave that suggestion to Jennifer Potter, president of Initiative for Global Development, an alliance of business leaders finding solutions to global poverty. Accepting an award from her college, she reminisced, In the blink of an eye, we went from the 50s with white gloves, panty girdles and hats to church, to the 60s with Bob Dylan, the civil rights movement and the pill. Details like these enable your audience to see your story, giving it far more impact. Too many people use nonspecific corporate speak, a sure-fire way to bore your audience. Specific details bring your talk to life.

One of the main reasons Chris Elias likes using stories is that they challenge his audience to think. When I tell a story, I see them thinking and getting more interested and more engaged, he explains. Stories provide the emotional hook that get people committed to understanding a problem. If they remember you and remember your story, there was a lot of thinking going on.

A well-told story deepens both the connection to your audience and the understanding of your material. In business, thats a pathway to success.

Jean Hamilton is the founder of Seattle-based Speaking Results, which coaches executives and other organizational leaders on presentation and communication skills. Contact her at speakingresults.com or 206.933.6645.