The Power of Storytelling

When I speak on presentation skills, I challenge the audience to take a few moments and think about the last speech, presentation, or sermon they’ve heard. Then I ask them to raise their hands if they can name two key points from that talk. The audience squirms and only one or two hands go up. 90% of the audience can remember anything!

What separates the memorable from the forgettable? In most cases, it is stories. When we share experiences from our personal or business lives, we connect with people on a human, emotional level. They are unlikely to remember our charts, but they won’t forget the time we maxed out our credit cards to make payroll or had a flat on the way to meet our biggest client and our cell phone was out of juice. 

I urge speakers to be real and share their stories as well as their bullet points, and yet so many of them tell me, “I don’t have stories anyone would want to hear.” That is simply not true. Our lives are filled with funny, touching, and powerful stories, but most of us don’t realize it. Or – if we do – we lack the courage to share ourselves with an audience. We are afraid of kidding ourselves, and yet people love it when we do.

In Elena Renken’s article, How Stories Connect and Persuade Us, “When you listen to a story, your brain waves actually start to synchronize with those of the storyteller and you are transported to another time and place.” I believe that all our experiences – good, bad, funny, sad – are communication gold as they belong to us alone. No one else on the planet has our stash of stories. Unfortunately, too many speakers refuse to use their own best material. Why? They think it’s too real. Too vulnerable. Not “professional.”

A story does not have to be important to be powerful. Let me give you an example. Last summer I was going to meet an old friend at a restaurant. It had been ten years since we’d seen each other and when a man walked in clearly looking for someone, I was sure it was my old friend. He looked as if he’d gained a little weight, but I went up to him, gave him a big hug and said, “It’s great to see you, Chris.”

He replied, mid-hug, “I’m not Chris.” It could have been an awkward moment, but we both started laughing simultaneously. It was such a human mistake. The same day I was scheduled to speak to 200 people and decided to begin my talk by telling the story of the misplaced hug. The audience roared, and we established an immediate bond.

In telling stories, you don’t have to look good. Be real. Make yourself the butt of the joke. Audiences don’t warm to those who talk only about their successes. They want to hear about your struggles, failures, and comebacks. Then they are willing to celebrate your success.

In his article, “Storytelling That Moves People” in the Harvard Business Review, Bronwyn Freyer states, “A big part of a CEO’s job is to motivate people to reach certain goals. To do that, he or she most engage their emotions, and the key to their hearts is a story…If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, you can get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.”

My job as a speechwriter/editor is often to encourage and convince people that their stories are worth telling. I have never met one person who did not have interesting experiences to share. If you are married, you have stories. If you have children, you have stories — and pictures on your iPhone to go with them! The list of story possibilities is endless: neighbors, in-laws, pets, high school, vacations, first job, good bosses, and bad bosses. I enjoy hearing people talk about embarrassing moments as well as their proudest moments. As author Robin Moore states, “Inside of each of us is a natural-born storyteller, waiting to be released.”

When my dad was nearing eighty, I took him on a three-week trip to China and Tibet. On the flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, we lost three engines over the Pacific and had to make an emergency landing in Tokyo wearing life jackets. My father had survived 75 missions in a B-17 during WWII, and I hoped he wouldn’t meet his maker on a 747. Fortunately, we survived, and I used that story for years as an example of how quickly our lives and our businesses can change – and how we must instantly adapt. We are a mixture of ups, downs, adventures, and struggles. There are stories in our lives that will move an audience if we have the courage to tell them.

In the early nineties, I heard General Colin Powell speak soon after the success of the first Gulf War. He was a national hero and had retired a few months earlier. Today I have no idea what he talked about, except for one story that I have remembered for 25 years. He told the audience, “I love being retired. Finally, I can take my wife to the movies on a Saturday night. Last week, we were walking back to our car from a local theater and a woman ran up to me and said, ‘I’m so thrilled to see you, general. I’ve admired you for years. You are one of my absolute favorite people, General Schwarzkopf’”

The story got a big laugh, but more importantly, it formed an authentic connection between the five-star general and his audience. At a deep level, we said to ourselves, “He’s just like me. People forget his name just like they forget mine.” I don’t know if it was a real story or a speechwriter’s invention, but it doesn’t matter. The anecdote established a warm connection between the general and his audience – and I have remembered it for more than two decades.

I challenge you to make a list of your own memorable moments – funny, touching, challenging – and find ways to integrate them into your presentations. As up share yourself along with your message, you will connect to an audience, entertain them, and have your key points remembered.

Jim Comer works with clients through one-on-one coaching on speechwriting and speech coaching – in person or on Zoom. He also offers presentation workshops to help organizations train groups become more confident and persuasive speakers. For more information on how we can work with you, contact me at www.comercommunications.com