How to Tell Stories of Struggle, Loss, and Failure in a Speech to Move Audiences

Christopher Witt —  November 14, 2014 — Leave a comment

Stories of Loss and HardshipStorytelling is one of the most effective tools in a speaker’s toolbox.

Without a story, a speech never takes flight. Or, to mix metaphors, it never takes root in the hearts and minds of your audience.

There are, of course, many types of stories you can tell.

My least favorite type of story to tell in a speech is the fable. You know the type: generic teaching stories about archetypal (fictional, one-dimensional) characters that have an obvious moral.

I find that stories and anecdotes from history are extremely effective, as long as they’re new to the audience and spot-on relevant to the audience. (I recently heard a story about the Wright brothers and Henry Ford, that I’m itching to work into a speech.)

I’m particularly partial to personal stories. They’re unique: the audience won’t have heard them before, unless they’ve heard them from you. And they forge a connection between you and the audience.

In the past couple of years I’ve had an easier job getting my clients — mostly business leaders — to incorporate personal stories into their speeches.

And the most powerful, the most moving stories they tell are not their success stories (“I was down. I worked hard. I succeeded.”), but their stories of struggle, loss, and failure.

Success stories serve an important function in a speech, but they have to be used judiciously, sparingly. If you only talk about your accomplishments, you risk sounding like a narcissist. You risk distancing yourself from your audience by setting yourself up on a pedestal.

Telling people about your hard times, your doubts, your regrets, the wrong turns you’ve taken, the bumps and bruises and (sometimes) the beatings you’ve survived…and the lessons you’ve learned from them…can be a powerful teaching tool.

Notice I said, “can be.” Wrongly told or told for the wrong reason a personal story of hardship can be disastrous.

Here’s how to use such a story well…

1. Create some emotional distance from the story.

Be sure that you’ve worked through the pain and come to some sort of peace before telling your story. Don’t use speaking as therapy. It’s okay — preferable, really — to let your emotions show, but don’t let them overwhelm you. You don’t want to make the audience feel uncomfortable. And you don’t want them to pity you.

2. Make your personal story a universal story.

The only reason to tell a personal story is to illuminate something deeply personal and significant in your audience. The reaction you want from them is, “I’ve been there too. He/she could be talking about me.” It’s not about you. It’s about them.

3. As with any story you tell in a speech, make sure its take-away truth ties directly into the point you’re making.

Any story you tell must advance the goal of your speech. (Of course, the same thing can be said of any point you make in your speech or any quotation you cite or any piece of information you share.)

 

Do you tell personal stories in your speeches? If so, what works for you?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

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