How to use stories to bring your presentation to life

Have you ever read a novel you couldn’t put down, or watched a film you couldn’t turn off, or listened to an audio book which held you spellbound?

Why did they have that effect on you? Because they told a story. So if you want to captivate your audience when giving a speech or presentation – then you need to tell a story.

I will always remember going to a major conference some years ago. It was an all day event, with around 1500 people in the audience, and eight phenomenal speakers. They had it all – great stage presence, superb vocal delivery, exceptional body language, cutting edge humour.

When I got home, I was literally buzzing from listening to all those great presentations. The next week, I couldn’t wait to tell fellow members of my Toastmasters club all about the event.

‘Wow! You should have been there, what an event! The speakers were awesome,’ I enthused.

‘Sounds fantastic. What did they all speak about?’ someone asked.

‘Er, you know what? I can’t actually remember…’

That wasn’t 100% true – there was one speaker I could remember, and even to this day his points are still crystal clear in my memory. What made him different? He was the only speaker who had told stories to illustrate his points. That conference really hammered home the message – great speakers are great storytellers.

So, storytelling is an essential aspect of speech-making. Listen to most World Champion speakers, and the one thing they have in common is that they tell a story or stories in their winning speeches.

Listen to great motivational or inspirational or business speakers, and the very best ones have one thing in common – they all use stories to illustrate their main points.

Why is this?

Most of us as human beings have listened to and loved stories from a very young age. Stories are an intrinsic part of our human nature. They link our hearts and minds to those of the characters contained in them; they create emotional connections and bonds for us. When we listen to a powerful and dynamic story, we become transfixed, rooted, and the teller is able to fully engage with and appeal to our emotions.

We love stories because we always enjoy listening to how the characters resolve conflicts (every story has to have conflict, whereby the main character encounters obstacles and difficult situations that need to be overcome).

Even more importantly, we empathise with those characters who face similar, or greater, real life challenges than the ones we face.

Stories also work because they engage both sides of the human brain. The left hand side, which is the logical side, likes structure and order, and a good story has a definite beginning, middle, and end, and is well structured. The right hand side of the brain, which is the creative side, is stimulated by artistic works: poetry, music, art, and stories.

You could almost say then, that a good story appeals to the whole head, something that data and figures, graphs and charts on their own will never achieve.

Furthermore, stories feed the need for the audience to be entertained. Whatever the objective of your speech is – be it to move, motivate, inspire, inform, uplift, change the way your listeners think, or simply make them laugh – the audience has to be entertained. Using stories helps you to achieve this, for stories fire the audience’s imagination and paints pictures for them.

There are many different techniques, disciplines and practices to study and use when writing and telling a story, and if you are using longer stories, the scope for expansion and development is considerable. By practising your presentation in front of a friendly audience you can learn how to develop and structure your story and weave it into your speech.

Personal stories are often the most powerful stories, for they are uniquely your own and can be spoken with real passion and from the heart. Also, no-one else knows them!

However, whatever type of story you do choose to tell, be sure to include drama and conflict, powerful characters, and vivid descriptions so your story will dynamically come alive and your characters will live and breathe.

This will enable you to make a strong empathetic connection with your audience, and you will have a far greater chance of having your message remembered, than if you were just regurgitating facts and figures or reams of data or simply delivering random motivational quotes.

Article by Andrew Brammer, Distinguished Toastmaster and former UK and Ireland Humorous Speech Champion

About Andrew Brammer
Andrew is a member of Toastmasters International where he holds the highest qualification of Distinguished Toastmaster. In 2000 he won the UK and Ireland Humorous Speech Championship. See: http://speakingwords.co.uk/

About Toastmasters International:
Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs. Founded in October 1924, the organisation currently has more than 270,000 members in 13,000 clubs in 116 countries. Each week, Toastmasters helps more than a quarter million people of every ethnicity, education and profession build their competence in communication so they can gain the confidence to lead others. There are over 250 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7000 members. For information about local Toastmasters clubs, please visit www.toastmasters.org

1 Comment on How to use stories to bring your presentation to life

  1. I completely agree with Andrew. The first time I realised the importance of this was when a colleague spoke to a conference about a project she was managing: witness support. Worthy but not what you would think of as riveting. What she did was to explain briefly what the project was and then she told stories of how the project had helped individuals and their families. It’s the only presentation I can remember from that day, twenty years ago!

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