10 storytelling guidelines from professional speakers

Presenters often rely on anecdotes and allegories, to significant effect. Here are some insights into how to do it well—and avoid potential pitfalls.

Here’s an interesting batch of comments and informative views that were posted to the National Speakers Association (NSA) Facebook page when a speaker asked, “Do you think stories are overrated in presentations and audiences are starting to see through them as manipulation tactics?”

The responses clearly show why professional speakers use stories in their speeches. The comments are filled with useful tips and tricks on the most effective ways to use stories in a speech. The names of the contributors have been removed. (Editor’s note: Only punctuation has been corrected in the following comments. No wording was changed by Ragan.com)

1. I would say a story is to help connect with the audience … to help them relate to the message … but it would depend on the message and how the story is presented.

2. It’s like the whole salt metaphor. Any element of a speech if used too much can ultimately spoil a dish, but when used right it actually brings out the best favors of the other elements. I know that’s an overused metaphor, but I think we sometimes focus too much on one element of speaking. Stories, PowerPoint, hand gestures, humor, music, etc., rather than thinking about how all the ingredients play together and for what purpose.

3. Stories are the cornerstone to creating a memorable message long after the presentation is over. Presentation is key-if your audience can “feel” your story, you have succeeded.

4. I think that a speaker who does not use stories will more than likely lose the interest of their audience. Stories done properly are powerful tools. Just look at how much of the Bible is based on stories being told, and it is still selling well.

5. Two things are key. Relevance: Is the story relevant to the present time, historically? Make modifications to make it relevant. Relationship: What is the speaker’s relationship to the story? If there is no meaningful reason to choose to tell a certain story, don’t tell it.

6. To me the key is authenticity. If it is yours and it is true and it makes a point integral to the learning experience of the audience, then stories can be powerful. Tell someone else’s story as if it is your own … you are asking for trouble.

7. Stories are the fingerprint to your platform. I can think of no other single element that differentiates you from others. For me, the ability to connect and be authentic is directly attributable to my ability to be conversational through sharing my story. Without stories, I think we run the risk of being viewed as a talking head—full of facts, figures, and other researched data. Stories personalize the message. I have always been of the mind that the audience wants conversation. Stories are what most conversations are all about. I don’t believe they are overrated at all. I suppose if they were, TED talks would not be so popular. I do, however, believe the audience can tell the difference between a well-delivered story by a trained professional—versus a poorly delivered story trying to be disguised as something relevant.

8. One it the founders of NSA often told me it is easier to change audiences than to change speeches. He was one of the best platform speakers I have ever known, and he had but one speech. It was all original material, and he did it so well the people would come to hear him time and again just because of his manner and the info given. My suggestion is that when you create something, just do two things. First, put the time into being as professional as possible, and then don’t get tired of your material because you have heard it before.

Remember, we are there not to please ourselves—although if we do it right, we will—but rather to add value to the lives of those we touch. Also, remember that to a new audience the information you are sharing is the first time they have heard it from you, and no matter the number times you have given it, don’t let them down by failing to deliver it with the excitement you gave the first audience that heard it.

9. The audience connects more with stories than with facts and figures. Tying the two together to create an actionable takeaway makes the tales worthwhile.

10. People love stories… if you’re a good story teller. If you’re not a good story teller, then it seems like you went off on a tangent and just talking about yourself. When speakers are also great story tellers it enhances the speech.

However, there is a type of story that is overdone, and that is the “personal struggle to triumph” story. Seems like every speaker wants to start off with this “I was in a horrible situation and got out of it and need to speak now to tell you all about it” approach. Most of these situations aren’t relevant to the audience and might even seem that bad (i.e. “I was living in a studio apartment…” Yeah, we all did at one point … but I’m here to learn XYZ). Whenever I tell a story or make an analogy I try to tie it in as closely as possible to the point I’m making so people stay with me and it makes sense.

A version of this article first appeared on Ian Griffin’s Professionally Speaking blog.

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