Let Me Tell You A Story
Before I became a public speaker and global speaker coach, I didn’t really understand the power of stories. I mean – I guess I knew they were important, but I didn’t really relate them to public speaking. Most of the ‘public speaking’ I had been subjected to (yes, I do mean subjected) was pretty bad. You know the type of thing – ‘Death By PowerPoint’ (Agatha Christie should have written that one).
Most people (including me at that time) think that public speaking is hard, and that to “do” public speaking without notes or a PowerPoint is pretty much an impossibility. And they are right – IF they are thinking about those old Death By PowerPoint presentations. I mean, who could remember all those figures and other data, right?
But you see, that is NOT what compelling public speaking is about.
Think about it.
Why do people buy? And make no mistake when you are speaking your ‘selling’ even if it is only selling a concept.
People buy on emotion and then justify it with logic. They don’t buy a drill because they just want a drill. They don’t buy a drill to make holes. That’s just the logic. They buy a drill because they want to put up the bookshelf that will set the room off or hang those pictures of their darling little children/grandchildren.
In other words, they have a picture in their head of their project – they can see what it will look like, they can feel how happy they will be once it’s done. Then they will justify buying the expensive drill because it has all these features – 37 million interchangeable heads, 15 speeds, cuts through kryptonite etc. But actually, what they bought is the warm fuzzy feeling of the job done.
And that’s what makes a great public speaker.
You need to be able to paint a picture in the audience’s mind’s eye. And they need to be able to see (themselves at) the endpoint. Which should, it goes without saying, be a happy ending. The problem with constructing stories in public speaking is that it isn’t as straightforward as just recounting what happened.
When you think about something that has happened to you this week, there are all sorts of detail that you don’t need to share. Anything that does not add to the picture in the audience’s mind’s eye, and anything that is not relevant to the endpoint, can go. But it is knowing what these are that is the trick, and the problem is – you are probably too close to your own story to make that call.
Check out the following 2 versions of a short story.
The little girl woke up that morning at 6 am, which was a bit earlier than she usually got up and she could hear the birds singing outside. She got up yawning and looked at herself in the mirror. Her dark hair was tousled and so she picked up her hairbrush and started brushing it.
She realised it was Saturday and she had no school, and wondered what she would do with the day, that was starting to look like it wasn’t going to rain for once.
She got dressed finding her underclothes in the drawer and her shoes under the bed, brushed her teeth, went to the toilet, and then went downstairs as she was hungry. “What do you want for breakfast?” her mother asked. “Some porridge please,” said the girl.
Her Mother made the porridge whilst the little girl doodled on a piece of paper. When breakfast was ready, she ate it and then said to her mother, “I’d like to go and see Grandmama today, I haven’t seen her for a few weeks because she has been poorly. Can I go and take her something to eat? Is that OK?”.
“Grandma has been very ill sweetheart, maybe we can go visit her next week when she is a bit better”. “Oh, please Mother, I know it will make her feel better to see me and I miss her so much”. “Oh, let her go Joan!” shouted her dad from the other room. “Well, OK then,” said her mother, “let me pack you a picnic to take round”.
Her Mother put some bread, cheese, apples, cake and a jar of honey, into a picnic basket. “Put your red coat on,” said her Mum, “and put your hood up – it’s chilly outside. Go straight there and no talking to any strangers”. “Of course, Mother, I do know that. I’m always careful!” said the girl.
The little girl set off at 9 am, it was a 15-minute walk through the woods, to her grandmother’s house. She set off down the path and hummed to herself. She loved the woods, with all its wildflowers – especially the wild poppies and big daisies.
She found herself stopping to pick some of them. “Grandmama will love these”, she thought. She noticed a bright blue butterfly and chased it down the path and then off to the side of the path into a little clearing, where she found other butterflies and frogs, croaking merrily.
She sat down for a while, happily watching the butterflies chase themselves around all the wildflowers and listening to the frogs. She was so engrossed in the moment; she didn’t notice a shadow emerging from the wood behind her.
And now read this version….
One morning, Little Red Riding Hood asked her mother if she could go to visit her grandmother as it had been a while since they’d seen each other.
“That’s a good idea,” her mother said. So, they packed a nice basket for Little Red Riding Hood to take to her grandmother.
When the basket was ready, the little girl put on her red cloak and kissed her mother goodbye.
“Remember, go straight to Grandma’s house,” her mother cautioned. “Don’t dawdle along the way and please don’t talk to strangers! The woods are dangerous.”
“Don’t worry, mommy,” said Little Red Riding Hood, “I’ll be careful.”
But when Little Red Riding Hood noticed some lovely flowers in the woods, she forgot her promise. She picked a few, watched the butterflies’ flit about for a while, listened to the frogs croaking and then picked a few more.
Little Red Riding Hood was enjoying the warm summer day so much, that she didn’t notice a dark shadow approaching out of the forest behind her…
Suddenly, the wolf appeared beside her.
The Difference Between The Two Versions
The first version of the story was literally what (might have) happened that morning. And at just short of 450 words, it had a lot of detail in it that was not really required and didn’t add anything to the story.
In the second version – all the fluff was cut out, and some of it changed slightly to make the story move along quicker. So, in version one – there is a bit of a debate about whether Red should go visit her grandma or not. It might have been more accurate, but it adds nothing to the story. And changing ‘real life’ debate into ‘the girl asking and the mother saying yes’, takes nothing away from the story either.
And so what I am saying here is that as it is a story, it is perfectly acceptable to leave things out that are not relevant or change the timeline or who said what. The point of this story is, that you should do as your mother tells you or bad things will happen because there are bad ‘uns out there in the world, that you need to be aware of and protect yourself from. (The story probably originates from the medieval era, where being in the village was safe and being everywhere outside of it was not).
3 tips for storytelling
- Keep your eye on the prize. What is the endpoint of the story? What do you want people to feel and do? Take out everything that does not contribute to that.
- You are probably too close to the story – if it is a personal one – to be able to do that edit. Get yourself a storytelling coach, who can see the right progression.
- And remember – as my fellow coach and friend, Carole Fossey, rightly says – “It’s a STORY, not a HISTORY”. All the details don’t necessarily need to be there. The timeline doesn’t have to be exactly as it was, and the exact words, don’t need to be repeated to the letter. As long as the story is based on the truth that you want to illustrate, then that works.
Would you like the chance to have me coach you on putting together your compelling story, and keynote speech AND give you your opportunity on a ‘proper stage’ to tell your story, have it video’d and made into a book, along with a ‘Graham Norton’ style interview to back up your business story, and give instant credibility?
If the answer is ‘yes please’ then contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on whichever social media platform you prefer, and we can talk about the Sensational Speaker Positioning Package. The July dates are full, but we have some availability in the autumn.
And until then – my advice – read as many stories as you can and write down all the stories you have in your life, that could be used to illustrate the truth of your offering. And between us, we will turn them into a modern masterpiece!