4 ways to electrify speeches through storytelling

The platitudes you offer—or mission statements you regurgitate—will soon be forgotten. Make your point with a story, however, and audiences will long remember your message.

Speechwriting and storytelling

Boston’s literary Brahmin were dining sumptuously—seven courses washed down with Sauterne, sherry, Chablis, Champagne, claret and Burgundy—and by the time Mark Twain rose to speak, everyone was in a convivial mood.

Guests included America’s “trinomial of literary saints”: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The fuddy-duddies settled in for what they apparently thought would be a harmless chuckle from the backcountry humorist.

Instead, Twain roasted them, telling a story about three Nevada prospectors—sharing the writers’ names, as it happens—who get drunk, cheat at cards and threaten to brawl, Humanities magazine relates. Twain described Emerson as “a seedy little bit of a chap,” Holmes as “fat as a balloon” and Longfellow as looking as if he wore “a wig made of hair-brushes.”

The speech “produced the most violent bursts of hilarity,” the Boston Globe noted, but some were affronted. Twain felt compelled to write letters of apology to his three victims. Yet if he offended some, he succeeded brilliantly at one thing: telling a story.

The power of narrative images

As a speaker, my experience is limited to the Toastmaster’s Club and occasional teaching gigs. As a listener, however, I have learned a little about the content of speeches, having sat through thousands of conference speeches, sermons and other public addresses over the years.

My conclusion: The interesting speakers tell stories.

How often have you left a speech remembering not the platitudes, but the jokes and anecdotes? I can still remember a story about Jackie Robinson from a sermon I heard as a second-grader. Any theological abstractions the pastor offered that day, however, are lost to me.

Want to win your audience over? Begin with a story. Tell stories to illustrate your points along the way. End with a story.

Often stories about public speaking emphasize matters of presentation or ways to shake off the jitters. Though these are essential points, one shouldn’t overlook the power of stories and anecdotes to solidify the abstract in the minds of listeners.

Here are some tips:

1. Offer a surprise ending.

The radio commentator Paul Harvey was a master storyteller. His stories often took a different look at familiar characters. Consider his broadcast about a down-and-outer named Al.

“Remember these four words,” Harvey says. “Al was utterly useless. Al was utterly useless.”

Harvey goes on, “‘I’m nothing but a burden on my family,’ [Al] once told his sister in a letter. ‘Really, it would have been better if I had never been born.’

“Al had hit bottom by the age of 22. His parents, impoverished, were no longer able to support him. He needed a job, but nobody would hire him.”

In desperation, Al appealed to an old school friend who got him a job interview the Federal Patent Office. Despite Al’s past failure, the director, Fred Haller, took a chance and hired him.

The story hangs on a surprise ending. After setting up Al as a complete failure, Harvey reveals Al’s full name: Albert Einstein.

You could draw all kinds of memorable lessons from that story.

2. Use self-deprecating humor.

There are two advantages of making yourself the butt of the joke. First, you know yourself better than anyone else, and so you can tell a story with clear detail. Second, even though the spotlight is on you, you disarm your audience by doing the opposite of bragging: poking fun at the speaker.

One writer recalls that, as marketing director for a New York City television station, she wrote up a stack of index cards to prompt her points for a speech at New York University. As she ascended the stage, she tripped and her cards went flying.

As she gathered her cards, “to my horror, I realized I had failed to number them.” No problem. She told her audience, “Lesson No. 1 of ‘How to Give an Effective Presentation’: Make sure to number your notecards.’”

Everyone laughed. She threw her cards to the floor and said, “Lesson Number 2: Rehearse and know your subject matter so cards are unnecessary.”

3. Establish desire and resistance.

The brilliant Canadian author and feared writing professor Douglas Glover says a story must have “desire and resistance”—that is, a character with a goal, and obstacles that thwart that goal.

The same characteristics can make for a motivational speech. These generally have the theme, “I got knocked down, and I got back up,” says Rob Friedman, an affiliate consultant for Ragan Consulting Group and former senior director of executive communications at Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant.

He has used the story of Wilma Rudolph, born prematurely in Tennessee, who had weak, deformed legs. Unable to get treatment at a whites-only hospital, her mother took her to a black medical college in Nashville twice a week, Friedman said.

Despite her disability, Rudolph wanted to be an athlete. She was 12 when she first walked without corrective shoes and braces. In September 1960 in Rome, she became the first U.S.  woman to win three medals in the Olympics.

4. Heighten the stakes.

Stories interest us most when something is at stake. It doesn’t have to be Gandalf standing on the Bridge of Khazad-dum roaring at the dread Balrog of Moria, “You shall not pass.” Stories with suspense—in which the hero stands to win or lose something important—are inherently interesting.

Consider Robert Krulwich’s 2011 commencement speech to Berkeley Journalism School, in which he honored CBS newsman Charles Kuralt as a 23-year-old cub reporter striving to beat the competition with a story:

[O]ne night – in the middle of the night, on the graveyard shift, 2 a.m.—the bell on the wire ticker goes off and says an airplane has just fallen short of the runway at LaGuardia Airport and is sinking in the East River, right now.

And Kuralt and the night editor flip a coin for who’s going to go, Charles wins and runs downstairs, jumps into a cab and says, “Take me To LaGuardia.” The problem is, no sooner are they out of the Midtown Tunnel than the cab gets snarled in some weird pre-dawn, fire engines-heading-to-the-airport traffic jam. So Kuralt leaps out and starts running through the tangled cars up the highway, when he sees a guy on a motorcycle weaving his way through the traffic.

So he waves his hands wildly, flags him down, says he’s a news reporter, there’s a plane in the water, he’s on deadline, “Take me!” And the motorcycle guy jerks his thumb at the saddle on his bike, says “Hold on.” And then, like a stunt driver, zigzags through the cars to the airport. And Kuralt is one of the first on the scene, where he climbs over fences, gets the interviews, and makes it onto the evening news. After which he’s anointed “correspondent,” the youngest ever—at 23.

Whatever the journalism grads took from Krulwich’s speech, that’s one story I bet they will remember. Some might even be inspired to commandeer a motorcycle themselves someday.

Lesson learned.


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