How to Tell Stories that Stick


After 30 years as a conference interpreter, making sense of speakers becomes second nature. It is easy to see what works and what doesn’t in public speaking.

Too many presenters adhere to a predictable presentation routine that goes like this:

  • open with a busy overview slide
  • cover every item in orderly fashion
  • finish with a painful recap of every bullet covered

They basically tell you how they plan to bore you, then they bore you, then they show you how they did it.

This is an old-school script that some would consider safe. But is it wise?

Bored minds crave excitement, not structure. Telling people what to expect eliminates the one ingredient that could keep people glued to their seats all along: suspense. It also conditions them to be selective in how they give their attention – Oh, I will look up again when she reaches bullet 9. In the meantime, let me check my Facebook and pretend I am tweeting about the talk.

The inability to anticipate what a speaker will say – and the hope that he or she will say something worth one’s salt – is what keeps people listening through the end of a talk. It is also what keeps interpreters busy in preparations the night before. They know that once a presenter is off the cuff, anything can happen, and that redemption will come only by committing their undivided attention – if it comes at all.

By contrast, spoon-feeding an audience too much information too soon may lead to complacency. Familiarity breeds contempt. While hard facts and figures are key to our understanding and appraisal of reality, only through stories do our minds begin to assign meaning to the information we receive.

We are all born into a language and, just as well, into a particular canon of oral tradition. As humans, we are hardwired to communicate orally. Language is an instinctive drive, a life skill. Our ancestors were accomplished storytellers way before they put together the first alphabet or string of numbers.

Through tales heard and shared we affirm the identity that makes us unique while looking for the commonalities that make us all human. Writing and math, as precious and useful as they are, came late in our evolutionary trail. First it was the voice, the spoken word. We are born storytellers. We long to tell and be told stories.

An able speaker understands this basic human longing.  She knows people won’t gather around a bonfire for a recital of figures or a budget review. They come for the story, and will leave – or get detached (FB) – once it fades away.

Weaving stories into a talk is a fail-safe way of ensuring increased appreciation and retention of a message.  Nobody has the formula, but here are seven things I have seen used with good results.

  1. Open with a challenging claim or the promise of an a-ha moment –What if everything you knew about X was wrong?
  2. Pique people’s curiosity through a few more odd claims. Work on your pauses to allow them time to ponder. A curious mind will agree to temporarily move beyond plausibility and follow you down a rabbit hole.
  3. Use analogies and imagery to help people digest numbers and stats. Don’t bother saying a nanometer is 10 to the power of minus 9. Tell them it is as long as their fingernails will grow in one second. It is equally elusive, but it will get them looking at the back of their hands and away from their phones.
  4. Engage their senses. Give them something to hear, smell, touch and taste in their mind. Use language allusive to color, music, texture, flavor and fragrance.
  5. Engage their emotions, too, by appealing to the humorous, sad or hopeful side of your tale. Make it human.
  6. Involve them. Put the audience in the picture or give them someone or something they can root for.
  7. Remove yourself from the frame and become just the narrator. It is the story they care about.

Don’t try it all at once. Mastering this speaking secret requires a gradual approach. Prepare a good opening tale for your next talk, with at least three of the ingredients above and give it a try. It may not bring the house down, but I guarantee it will take you further than your bulleted list would.

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Read the Series Introduction or unlock speaking secret 1.
Over to you. Have you tried any of the suggestions above?
The series is also available on Linkedin Pulse.

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