Storytelling in Public Speaking: The number one characteristic that makes a speaker great.

That’s my story (and I’m sticking to it)

Storytelling in public speaking is the number one characteristic that makes a speaker great.  I had an attendee at one of my speaking engagements ask the other What's Your Story? Storytelling in public speakingday, “What do you think of Andy Andrews as a speaker?”  It’s one of my most hated questions, because speaking (and listening) is an intensely personal endeavor.  The speakers I like may be mediocre to you.  Politicians are especially divisive.  I’ve had people tell me that Barack Obama was the best public speaker they’ve ever heard and others opine that his technique and content made him unlistenable.  I would surmise from the variety of comments that personal politics (which I do not discuss in public forums or in my professional life) weighs heavy in their assessment.

I choose to analyze speaking as a craft – what can someone do to grab and keep my attention and cause me to act on what they say?  If a politician who doesn’t represent my views can make me listen, they must be a fantastic orator.  If a teacher educating me in a class I care nothing about makes me want to attend lecture, they must have exceptional rhetoric skills.  If a family member can make me perk up when they speak, they are adept at communication.

Which brings us back to Andy Andrews.  I first heard Andy in 2007 at the NSA National Convention in Atlanta, GA.  It was my first introduction into bigtime speakers and the business of speaking. I was mesmerized by the people that rolled onto the stage.  They were polished and entertaining.

As a newly aware and budding speech coach, I thought I had a good handle on the mechanics of speaking: how to show control and drive the impression of confidence; how to show energy and express (perceived) passion; how to manage the room and hiccups in the presentation to appear professional.  Those skills are the basis of our popular Powerful, Persuasive Speaking workshop that has given thousands the skill and awareness to excel on the stage and the foundation of our Storytelling Workshop.

Andy was an enigma.  He exhibited almost none of those delivery skills.  He pauses at awkward times.  He almost never stops – his posture or his voice.  His diction is rarely crisp.  He is as homey as they come.  And he often gives the impression he had one – or three – too many cups of coffee.

But I was absolutely mesmerized by him on stage.  I got (and read) his books; I watched YouTube videos of him.  I was surprised that more people hadn’t heard of him.  Despite his stage delivery shortcomings, I’d listen to anything he had to say.

I had fallen away from being an Andy fanboy until this recent question.  It reminded me of why I liked him so.  And the reason Andy excels has become a staple in our workshops and the number one characteristic that makes a speaker great.  It’s in his amazing ability to tell stories.

Like all the methods in public speaking, storytelling is a simple – yet difficult – skill that anyone can improve.

Here are three ways you can improve your storytelling:

  • Include rich details. The goal of speaking is to get in the head of the listener.  To make them do business with your topic and eventually act on some principle.  Stories do this by creating a picture in the mind of the listener.  The more exact the details, the more rich the movie playing in your audience’s mind.  Word of caution here, though.  You can be too detailed, and that causes you to run over time.  Practice and feedback will help you determine the balance of detail you need to keep attention without dragging the audience through the weeds.
  • Extract the metaphor. Don’t expect your audience to apply your story the way it has affected you.  Explain to them what the story means.  In nursery rhyme lingo, “The moral of the story is…
  • Apply to the audience. If all you do is tell your story, it’s about you (a violation of Rule #1). But any story can be turned to the audience with a simple phrase: “What about you?”  Ask the audience to apply that moral to their lives.  You’ll end up with a steady stream of people walking up to talk with you after your talk to tell their story.

You may note that this article hasn’t been a factual account of speaking methods.  The nuggets are there, but within the framework of a story telling you about how to tell a story.  Both my kids loved their eight-grade social studies teacher.  When I asked why, their answer was quick and simple: she tells stories.  Great preachers open with a story.  Good conversationalists are great storytellers.  Few people will want to listen just to your facts.  Almost everyone (even those who may disagree with you) will listen to your story.

The most powerful advice I give most of my clients is this: Tell Your Story.  I’ll add one more word here: Well.

Tell.  Your. Story.  Well.Storytelling is the one skill every master communicator uses well

We now implement elements of storytelling into every workshop we teach.  The major benefit to my coaching clients is in helping them craft a structure and a message to their story (most of the time their story is why they are getting asked to speak in the first place!). It’s straightforward and simple.  Yet many (most) budding and amateur speakers miss this important technique.

One last tip for anyone who finds themselves speaking (or thinks they might).  Start a log of your stories.  They don’t have to be earth-shattering.  Just a log that can trigger your mind. You might add what the moral of the story is, but at least get the story logged.  The water moccasin (preparedness and fear).  Separation at bag claim (communication and assumptions). The rich guy on the plane to Kansas City (it’s never too late).  The third base coach at the all-star tournament (model well – people are watching).  The minor league baseball player in Virginia (tell your story).  Those are a few of mine.

I heard an anecdote recently that shows the power of story.  In an ancient land, the king commissioned an artist to paint a fresco commemorating a recent battle victory.  As it was about to be completed, one of the generals happened to see it and exclaimed to the artist, “That’s not how the battle actually happened!”  The artist replied, “In 500 years, it will be.

Plato said it clearly: “Those that tell the stories rule society.”  It’s true today as well.  What’s your story?

Plato Quote "Those who tell the stories rule society"

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Communication matters.  What are you saying?

This article was published in the April 2017 edition of our monthly speaking tips email, Communication Matters. Have speaking tips like these delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up today and receive our FREE download, “Twelve Tips that will Save You from Making a Bad Presentation.”  You can unsubscribe at any time.