There are two easy ways to introduce a story when giving a speech: 1) Don’t introduce it — just jump right in; or 2) Say, “Imagine…”
When beginning a speech with a story — one of my favorite techniques — it’s not necessary, helpful, or wise to say anything about it. Just begin telling it.
(As a rule: the less you have to explain a story, the better.)
When seguing into a story somewhere later in your speech, you may need to alert your audience that you’re shifting from cognitive content (exposition, explanations, evidence) to an imaginative element.
The easiest way to do so is by using one word: “Imagine.”
Say, “Imagine.” Pause. Then, without further elaboration, tell your story.
Storytelling 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?
I love stories. I love telling stories. I love listening to them.
And I believe that there’s no better way to influence or inspire an audience than to tell a story. So I’m always on the lookout for a good story, well told. Here’s one I recently came upon of Noah St. John winning an event on the Snap Judgment stage.
Here’s what he did right.
1. He pauses at the beginning.
He walks to his place on the stage deliberately and without hurry. He plants his feet. He breathes. He looks at his audience and lets them look him over. And he takes a second breath. It’s a nervy, courageous, powerful way to start a story or, for that matter, to start any speech.
2. He leaps right into his story.
He doesn’t waste words. He doesn’t say, “I’d like to tell a story…” He simply begins his story, “When my mommas fight…” (See “How to Start a Speech” for more tips.)
3. He sets the stage
In the first minute of a five minute story (0:45 to 1:45), he orients us. He introduces the three main characters of the story: his two mommas (Robin who shuts herself in the bedroom when she’s mad, and Maria who makes toast), and himself (the anxious teenager who takes it all in “like a radio antenna”). He introduces the setting, which in this case is the car, a CRV that is “big-boned practical” and that is as much a part of the family as anyone. And he introduces the central conflict of the story: the fights that Robin and Maria have.
He doesn’t explain. He shows us all these things — the characters, the setting, and the conflict — the way a good storyteller does…with just the right amount of specific details.
4. He introduces conflict.
With only three words, “Last Tuesday night,” (1:46) he transitions from the the setting/background to the main action of the story. The “precipitating event” (Maria asks Robin and Noah to take a ride with her) isn’t momentous, but it plays on Noah’s (our our) fears. Their hearts (our hearts) are “thudding in off-beat unison.” What does she want? What is she going to tell them?
5. He intensifies the conflict.
Noah knows — or thinks he knows — what is happening: Maria is going to announce the end, a divorce. And for over a minute (2:24 to 3:30) Noah sits in the back seat playing out in his mind exactly what is ending, what is being lost. Notice how many times he says that he imagines, or wonders, or remembers, or thinks, or fears. Again, he doesn’t explain why he hurts. He shows us in briefly detailed, but telling images. And in doing so, we feel his pain.
6. He resolves the conflict by upending our expectations.
Maria hasn’t brought them together to announce a divorce, but to celebrate, telling them “The reason we took this ride is so that we can all be there to reach 100,000 miles together as the people who matter.” The audience laughs, both in relief and in appreciation of being cleverly surprised.
7. He shares his insight.
He comes to the realization (4:08) that “This isn’t a break-up ride. This is a stay-together ride.” (Notice the parallel structure of those two short sentences, and the juxtaposition of “break-up” with “stay-together.) And just as he spent a minute imagining the break-up, he spends another minute imagining their stay-together future. “In this moment we are one family, constructing road as we go, burning bridges behind us, adding miles like graceful aging, driving in our CRV towards moonlight.”
8. He stops talking.
He doesn’t say, “Thank you.” He trusts the story, his telling of it, and the audience, and he accepts their applause.
9. He makes his story, our story.
A good story is both personal (this story happened to Noah and his moms, not to anyone else) and universal (this story resonates with anyone whose family has gone through tough times and come out stronger).
I also like his use of a metaphor — the CRV standing in for their family, the 100,000 plus miles representing what they’ve been through. I appreciate how well written the story is. (The best way to tell a story well is to write it out and commit it to memory.) And I love how he started slow (even though he was nervous), picked up speed and energy, and ended on a high.
What do you think of his story? What do you think he did well?