7 ways to inspire your audience through stories

Fighting Nazis with obsolete rifles. Overcoming a childhood deformity to win the Olympics. Battling Alzheimer’s disease. Choose stories they’ll remember. Here’s how.

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Eli Lilly & Co., the pharmaceuticals company, was facing tough times. Over a three-year period, it would see the patents expire for products that accounted for a third of its sales.

Amid layoffs in 2009, CEO John C. Lechleiter called top leaders into a meeting, said Rob Friedman, Lilly’s senior director of executive communications.

Many in the room felt Lilly should follow its competitors that were moving away from costly drug development. Lechleiter, however, told three stories of how the company recovered from similar crises by innovating, not creating generic meds or branching into consumer products as others were.

“We’re going after cancer and Alzheimer’s disease,” he said, according to Friedman. “We were put here to innovate, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Inspired, the audience gave Lechleiter a standing ovation.

The three stories made the difference in winning the skeptics, said Friedman. Stories cross all learning style and cultures, he adds. People remember them.

Here are some types of stories to use in speeches:

1. The ‘trust me’ story

A story that establishes one’s credibility makes a good opener. Peter van Uhm, the Netherlands’ chief of defense, showed up for a speech carrying a rifle, Friedman said. Van Uhm said he wasn’t there to talk of the glory of guns.

In a speech titled “Why I Chose a Gun,” he recalled a story from his father, who was fighting the Nazis during World War II. Early in the German invasion, near the Dutch city of Nijmegen, he aimed at some Wehrmacht soldiers across the river Waal. He squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. No German fell.

The gun was outdated, and the bullets didn’t even reach the opposite shore. Van Uhm’s father couldn’t defend his homeland.

“Sometimes,” the general said, “only the gun stands between good and evil.”

2. Self-deprecation

Stories in which the speaker can laugh at a setback can be highly effective, such as the Lilly exec who laughed at the way a doctor ignored her when she dropped in, Friedman said.

“Stories of self-deprecation go a long way to winning an audience over, saying to an audience, I’m one of you,” he said.

3. Evidence stories

One speaker said that when you query databases, you must form your questions in a way that get the answers you need, Friedman said. This speaker told a story about a commander who calls in a lieutenant from the battlefield.

The bigwig says, “In a word, how’s the war going?”

“Good, sir,” says the lieutenant.

The commander decides he needs more information. So he asks, “How about in two words?”

The reply: “Not good, sir.”

The joke conveys the message more memorably than any statistics or data he might have cited.

4. Values in action

The best way to show a value is by modeling it in your life, Friedman says. It’s harder to preach about a value such as work/life balance, which Lilly was promoting.

The former president of the company’s U.S. operations illustrated the principle when he told why he’d changed his speaking time at a conference, according to Friedman.

It was the third “dad’s day” since the exec’s son had started school, but only the first that the father had attended, he told his audience. He confessed, “I realized that’s really bad, and I’m never going to miss another one.” Then, choking up a little, he said, “Put your family first.”

That story — a genuine, unscripted moment — carried more power than any corporate directive.

5. Motivation and inspiration

Motivational speeches generally have one theme: I got knocked down, and I got back up, Friedman says.

How about that of Wilma Rudolph? She was born prematurely in Tennessee and 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.

She first walked without corrective shoes and braces at age 12. But in September 1960 in Rome, she became the first American woman to win three medals in the Olympics.

Incidentally, inspirational stories don’t have to be about a person. They can be about your institution.

6. Framing story

Used early in the speech, this serves as an analogy that the speaker returns to throughout. Friedman cites a speech titled “The Sound of Leadership: What Women Know and Businesses Need to Hear.”

The speaker considers Maria Von Trapp — whose story was told in “The Sound of Music” — “from her manager’s POV.” Although she seemed not to understand or respect the rules, Maria was a leader, he asserted.

7. The human story

This type of story captures indelible emotion. Melvin Goodes, retired chairman and chief executive of Warner-Lambert, began a speech, “What do you do when sit with your doctor, and he starts with the only words you didn’t want to hear: ‘I’m sorry; you have early-stage Alzheimer’s.’?”

He added, “It was my doctor speaking, and he was addressing that difficult message to me.”

With that opener, who can forget Goodes’s call for speeding up the pace of scientific research and innovation?

Eli Lilly, your move.



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