The value of storytelling in business and executive communications is no secret. Incorporating stories into your presentations humanizes you, creates magnetic engagement and, ideally, memorably illustrates your point. An abundance of lectures, books, and articles are devoted to storytelling — so much so that if you don’t have a story in your speech, you might want to reconsider speaking.
But telling a good story and sharing a story strategically are two different things. The former is designed to entertain – best serving a minor purpose, while the latter is designed to illustrate your point – fulfilling a fundamental purpose. What you want is an inspired audience to support you or take action. What you don’t need is an audience that just thinks you’re a great speaker (unless your only goal is to get more gigs in public).
If you’re including a story in your next presentation, consider five strategic ways to make that story count.
1. Choose stories that prove, illustrate, or at least present your point.
In the context of a presentation, a story does not justify its own existence. Used most advantageously, history is a powerful vehicle through which a significant point travels. Your goal is to make the story relevant, not just compelling.
Any true story can help move a point forward – like a moment from your childhood, a revealing incident from your professional history, or an event you witnessed in a place of business – but the key is to connect the interesting moment to an imperative message.
For example, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is known to have spoken of an accident that kept his father out of work when Howard was a child and how that sparked his interest in taking care of Starbucks employees. Likewise, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh recounts his early days in the company, during which he recognized the value of building a corporate culture.
Both of these stories are deliberately designed to convey an important message or make a positive impression, not just to delight an audience or make the speaker more approachable.
2. Use language that explicitly connects your story to your point.
The work of making your story relevant doesn’t happen while the story is being told; it happens after you tell the story, with critical connecting lines like these:
“This story illustrates why we must…”
“This case study illustrates the importance of…”
“This event proves what is possible if we…”
“That moment was crucial in developing my appreciation for…”
These sentences bring the story into virtual neon for the audience. Without these connectors, the story lacks a clear purpose.
At the end of the day – or of a presentation – an audience that remembers your story but not your point of view ends up with something fun but worthless. But an audience that remembers your perspective — even if they forget the story — is blessed with inspiring insight.
The best TED talks are full of stories — they practically need them — but if you look closely, you’ll notice these connecting lines (“here’s why I told you that story”) expressed in different ways.
3. Keep the audience hooked with staging, volume, and pause.
Of all the effective storytelling tips, these three are the most practical for presenters:
First, set the scene. Share the date and time of day, location (like a city or restaurant), and any necessary conditions, like weather or holiday periods. These details help the audience visualize the story, which keeps them hooked.
Second, turn up your volume. This helps the audience cling to your words without straining to hear or understand, which can hinder their reception of the story and, therefore, your point of view.
Finally, embrace the break. The breaks add suspense to the story but, more importantly, give your mind time to generate the right words and ideas to keep the story tight and focused.
4. Keep stories quick and concise to stay in point mode, not narration mode.
The longer and more complicated a story is, the more likely it is to bore or at least distract your audience, so keep it to the minute by omitting details that may be intriguing but grab attention. a way from your point instead of towards it. Talking for more than a minute means you’re playing, not presenting. As I sometimes tell my clients, “It’s not This American Life. In and out of your story.”
5. Share not just what happened, but what you learned from it.
Humans connect to humans more effectively through relatable human feelings than recognizable events, so try to share a key learning, idea, or accomplishment that arose from the occasion. Sometimes this learning is your key point, and sometimes it leads to your key point, but discovering it and presenting it will make your story more personal and valuable to the audience.