Here's one of the phrases we heard often during our childhood: "Once upon a time."
We liked to hear the phrase, because those words signaled that a story was on the way. The theme of the story didn't matter much. Whether someone was going to read to us about the Arabian nights, Snow White, or Red Ryder at Dry Gulch, we knew we were going to be entertained.
Now and then the story frightened us, but that was okay, because we were in a safe haven physically. Only our minds had wandered away, lured by heroism, mystical visions, or even romance reaching far beyond our understanding.
Do we ever outgrow our love of good stories? I think not. Novelists know we don't. Movie producers-not all, but the best ones-are aware they have to include more than action and scenery to captivate and hold audiences. An intriguing plot is a must for maintaining attention.
Superlative speakers tell spellbinding stories. Through stories, they awaken curiosity, paint dramatic scenes, and even cause us to laugh aloud-or fight back tears.
So whenever you get an opportunity to speak to an audience, keep our affection for stories in mind. True, audiences can endure statistics, quotations, and a litany of complicated material. . .but not indefinitely. Break up those arid passages with a spellbinding story. Listeners will stay with you, wanting to know the outcome.
A few years ago, a speaker at my civic club portrayed the military careers of five World War II fighter pilots. He recounted their missions. By offering biographical sketches, he made them sound like our next door neighbors. He described how some of the pilots became lifelong friends, and still enjoy reunions.
I still remember that he got by with inadequate visual aids (too small for all the audience to see) because his stories were so vivid. We became absorbed in the scenes he painted verbally.
You don't hear the phrase much now, but we used to refer to master storytellers as "raconteurs." Though the name has faded, the skill remains valuable. Probably you're aware of some speakers who specialize in storytelling, referring to themselves as storytellers and not as speakers. I vote for abolishing the distinction. To achieve widespread success in speaking, you'll have to include forceful stories.
You can even relate stories in a stodgy business setting. Business and industry people love compelling stories. How else could we explain the popularity of "roasts," when even fictional stories enliven the evening? Usually, the true ones amuse us, too, and deepen our appreciation for the individual we are honoring.
My professional speaker colleagues will agree with me on the following guidelines for including stories in your speeches:
Stories must be credible. We can stretch an audience's imagination, yet we cannot stretch the truth.
Stories must be ethically acceptable. We cannot ridicule ethnic groups, nationalities, the elderly, or individuals with physical limitations.
Stories must be fresh. Nothing turns an audience off more quickly than a story that has made the rounds too many times. Avoid telling a story you read on the Internet, no matter how good it is, because chances are good your listeners have spotted that story a few weeks ago.
Stories are relevant. They are not told for their own sake, but to reinforce your theme or a specific point. Always show the connection clearly.
Is it all right to share your personal stories with audiences? Certainly-for stories about your life experiences create quick rapport. Keep them in balance, with stories about others taking front and center stage. Also, beware of making yourself too much of a hero in your story. It's fine to tell what you learned from a challenging event or illness, but refrain from boasting.
Now, think about the three most interesting and convincing speakers you have ever heard. They may not share the same style of delivery, level of education, skill with humor, or energy level. My guess, though, is that you selected three speakers who tell stories well.
No, you're not likely to begin with "Once Upon a Time." Yet "An interesting thing happened to me last week" will bring on the same magic we felt as very young listeners.