Compelling stories make memorable speeches

Speechwriting experts say facts, characters are OK, but the most engaging presentations feature conflict, drama, humor.

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A speechwriter’s goal is to provide a memorable script that creates a connection between the speaker and the audience that resonates long after the speech is over.

The best way to do that? Tell a story.

“Stories are what we pay attention to,” said Vinca LaFleur, a partner at West Wing Writers, a speechwriting and communications strategy firm in Washington, D.C. “Stories are what we remember, so much so that sometimes we want to, and are able to, retell them long after the fact, which is wonderful if you are a communicator and you are trying to spread your message far and wide.”

It is the use of a story, not an abundance of facts or the quality of the delivery, that makes a lasting impression, LaFleur said in this Ragan Training session, The power of storytelling: What you can learn from executive speechwriters. She was joined by Rod Thorn, senior director of communications at PepsiCo, and Michael Long, director of writing for the master’s program in public relations and corporate communications at Georgetown University.

She cited one Stanford professor’s classroom studies as proof. Students presented one-minute speeches arguing different interpretations of the nation’s crime statistics. Then the class watched a short, unrelated video. After the viewing the video, the students were asked to write down everything they remembered about the speeches they had heard just minutes earlier.

Stories make an impression

According to the professor, the speakers averaged about 2.5 statistics per speech, but only one in 10 students told a story. But the pattern of what they remembered was quite the opposite: 63 percent remembered the stories, yet only 5 percent recalled any single statistic, LaFleur said.

“When this story you choose for your writing is a human story, one that connects people’s hearts and minds, then you can not only make them think, but you can make them care, and once people care, then it is easier to inspire them to act,” she said.

Stories work so well because they feature basic characteristics of memorable communication: concrete and specific detail, feelings and facts, and the unexpected, LaFleur said.

“We remember our feelings longer than we remember details,” Georgetown’s Long said. “When speeches connect with people where they live, it allows them to engage without thinking. Instead, they can feel, and that happens autonomically.”

Situations are not stories

Long said that when he teaches, he stresses the difference between a story and a situation.

“A story is set apart from a situation by the presence of obstacles,” he said. “A story is when there is tension and there is release. You’ve got to have something to overcome.” A situation is merely a setting, a place for a story to unfold.

He further defines a story as “one or more conflicts presented in a way that evokes emotion,” as the recent series of comic “Hangover” movies displayed. He said his definition describes every major motion picture of the last 20 years.

Both LaFluer and Long said notable characters are often important to good stories. She said the collaboration of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard to create HP’s first product in a Palo Alto, Calif., garage is a great origin story, as is the tale of Estee Lauder, who launched her cosmetics empire by offering free makeovers to every woman she met.

Strong stories bring box office success

Though characters are important, they aren’t everything to a good story, Long said. Of the 10 top-grossing movies of all time, five had unknown actors in leading roles. Those movies (“E.T.” and “Titanic” are two examples) were not driven by celebrity actors of the day, but by the compelling stories, he said.

Thorn, of PepsiCo, said he looks at life as “one big adventure filled with a series of adventures.”

“Every single thing in that life, every single day, is important, not just for you but also for the people you are writing for,” he said. “You can really find stories in the most unimaginable places.”

He said asking questions of CEOs in unguarded moments is the time “when the magic really happens.” Getting them to open up about who they are, how they achieved success and what are their intentions “are just golden for what you want to hear.”

Thinking like a playwright

Thorn, who also has had success as a playwright, said it is not golden when CEOs say, “‘Here’s our story: We’re a $66 billion or $22 billion brand and blah, blah, blah.’ That’s not a story. Those are factoids being thrown out there.

“My play writing mentor taught me early on, the people in the audience in the theater have given up whatever it is they were doing to sit there and listen to you for a while, to watch your characters, watch your drama, your comedy, [or] your tragedy take place,” he said. “It is up to you to bring them along with you. You’re really doing them a disservice if you just spit out facts.”

The audience will feel something from a successful speech, and the powerful story behind it can motivate them to do what should be done, he said.

Steps along the storytelling journey

Thorn said his story journeys follow this path: The setup, the problem, the hard time, the resolution, and the wrap-up.

Said another way, the journey is: Once upon a time, suddenly, fortunately, and they live happily ever after (or, unfortunately, and they were screwed), he said.

The emphasis on storytelling Thorn brought to IBM was displayed on the cover the company’s 2000 annual report. In a simple text-only presentation, it said in part: “You’re one page away from the no-holds-barred story of one year in the life of a company. It’s the story of big battles, stinging defeats & gritty comebacks, unexpected alliances, faring forays & game-changing discoveries.”

“Try putting that on the cover of your annual report,” he said.

Thorn described his humble beginnings and said, “I’ve had the most ridiculous life to prepare me to do what I’m doing now.” He then encouraged attendees to “embrace who you are, embrace your own story, and help the people that you write for embrace theirs.”

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