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10 Business Storytelling Tips for Speakers

Many situations in business call for the use of compelling stories: Training workshops. Talks at company or industry events. Presentations to prospective and current customers or clients. Keynotes at conferences. Stories are the secret sauce between good and great — and truly awesome speakers.

Here are some tips that will help you with any storytelling opportunity you may have:

Identify your signature stories

Any personal hip pocket story can become a signature story. Signature stories are those handful of stories that uniquely identify you. They may be defining moments in your life or situations of extreme significance. They’re stories that are so compelling they deserve to be told time and time again. They are your stories.

Personal signature stories can be as simple the story of a young girl becoming a competitive swimmer at age 10 after overcoming a fear of water that was so consuming that her mom couldn’t wash her hair. What’s most important are the key message and the actions you want to engender in others after telling it.

The following questions and answers will help you uncover and use your signature stories:

  • How do I know which of my stories are really signature stories? Create a timeline of your life and reflect on those events and experiences that truly define who you are today. Another way is to ask colleagues, family, and friends to share with you which stories of yours they find to be unique.

  • Do I craft signature stories any differently than my other personal stories? Nope. Your challenge will be to figure out how to tell it in a way that balances all the details with the key message and actions you want to convey.

  • How often do you tell a signature story? Some speakers will share their stories forever or until they retire them — or until audiences stop finding them compelling. Some stories have a limited lifespan. Be careful that you don’t overuse the story to the point where it loses its effectiveness and luster.

  • Is it okay for your personal signature story to be a well-known public story? Some speakers may take on the persona of a historical figure such as Abraham Lincoln. In this case, the stories they would tell would be about the most memorable moments in Lincoln’s life.

  • What if I hear someone else telling my signature story? You should contact the individual, express your concern, and request that they stop using it immediately. If this level of intervention doesn’t curtail the behavior, you should seek legal advice on the options available to you.

Refashion a tale

If you share a fable in an internal work setting, other employees and even leaders may respond in a dismissive manner towards you. They won’t listen to your message, no matter how important it may be.

If you’re a professional speaker in a public setting, you might get a little different response if you’re using a tale to both entertain and transmit a message. Then again, people came to hear you — your ideas, your messages. There’s truly more power in personal stories in a business setting.

You should reserve telling tales until you’ve spent a couple years sharing your own personal stories and developing trust within an organization.

Especially if you’re a leader, employees don’t want platitudes. They want you to show up authentically and demonstrate your vulnerability.

We haven’t yet found a fable that has a built-in key message suitable for business use, along with a transition to suggested action(s). This means you need to craft an appropriate key message for any tale you may use at work — which might also mean tweaking its content to reinforce the ending elements.

There’s another thing that happens with fables: they’re often told repeatedly. Before using a story, you’d need to assess how much value you’re going to get out of it in a group setting. That means assessing what percentage of your audience might already know it.

In the end, if you’re going to use a fable, make sure the key message has a business purpose and that you can fashion suggested actions from it that fit your audience.

Open with a story

This is one of the most effective ways to capture people’s attention. The key message of the story is a perfect way to set the stage for the content to follow. If all you use is an opening story, remember to circle back, at a minimum, at the end of your presentation to the key message and suggested action(s).

Use a story in a short presentation

Other than opening a presentation with a compelling story, where else could you use a story within a presentation that may be no more than 10–30 minutes in length? Here are a few thoughts:

  • To introduce a new idea or unfamiliar concept.

  • To present data.

  • To transition from one part of your presentation to another.

  • At the end of a talk to bring together everything that’s been discussed and move people to action.

Craft a keynote solely based on story

Let’s say you have 45–60 minutes for your keynote talk. If you figure that the average length of a well-constructed story is somewhere between 5–8 minutes in length, and you want to share additional content after each story, or have the audience do a short activity, then you’re talking about one story approximately every 15–20 minutes.

There are two considerations when using stories in this manner:

  • How to find and select the stories: You should interview a select number of audience members in advance about your topic. A good rule of thumb is no less than five interviews.

    In the interviews, listen for a story that you could craft for the opening of your presentation that relates specifically to the subject. The interview might also trigger you to recall one of your own stories that would be perfect to include.

    Also listen for audience needs and expectations. Once you summarize the comments gained in the interviews, identify themes and choose stories based on them that will provide the most benefit to the audience. Every time you give a presentation, it can change based on what you learn from the pre-presentation interviews.

  • How to organize the stories for maximum impact: Once you know the stories you want to tell, look at the key message and layers of meaning attached to each one. From that, determine how they would best flow together — and how they create an overarching story arc that depicts transformation (real or possible) for the entire talk.

    Then take the key messages from these stories in the order in which they were presented and string them together into a logical flow. Repeat them at the end of the talk. That reinforces what people need to take away from the experience.

You sure you want to use PowerPoint?

How often have you seen or experienced the following? A set of PowerPoint slides is prepared for a talk. Every word and picture has been carefully selected. Then something happens. Maybe there’s no projector. Or the laptop goes on the fritz. Or there’s no screen and none of the walls can be used. Or the file doesn’t properly open.

Here’s how you should prepare for the unexpected. Carefully craft your stories — and the other parts of your presentation — so audience members are given enough sensory information to be able to create pictures in their mind’s eye. A well-crafted, compelling story should be able to be told without any slides. You owe this to your audience, especially if you’re being paid to speak.

Then, when you do use PowerPoint, you can use it to enhance your stories and your talk. Here are a few more points relevant to PowerPoint and story use:

  • Use a powerful visual to back up your point.

  • Have one succinct message per slide.

  • If you feel you have to use bullet points, limit yourself to no more than three per slide, preferably only one.

  • Remember to end your stories — and your talk — with suggested action steps. Never leave your audience guessing what they should do next.

  • Practice, practice. Practice so giving presentation is more fun. That’s another reason to build stories into your slide deck or design your entire PowerPoint deck as a story — it’s more fun and easier to deliver.

Use memory devices

One of the best measures of whether a story is truly compelling is whether listeners repeat it, along with the key message, to others. Here are some small things you can do — in addition to all the embellishments we’ve spoken about — that will get people to repeat your stories:

  • Sprinkle the words from the key message individually throughout your story. By the time listeners hear them together at the end, they’ve heard them several times.

  • Use words in the key message that start with consonants. Consider this key message as an example. Which sounds more powerful: “Promote the positive” or “express appreciation”?

  • Incorporate and exaggerate the emotional swings in a story. It’s not always easy to do. Once you’ve identified a structure for your story — and reorganized content around it — find ways to bring opposing emotions into the story.

    For example, if a story follows the SHARES structure (Setting, Hindrance, Action, Results, Evaluation, and Suggested actions), can you enhance differing emotions in the Hindrance and the Action sections? Or the Hindrance and the Result pieces?

  • Find ways to provide a tangible object or image as a story trigger. For example, when telling a story about giving out ChapStick as a marketing tactic, you could provide everyone who hears it with a tube of ChapStick to take away. You could even print the key message of the story onto the tube.

    If the story you’re telling is about personal transformation, and you’re speaking to a group of women, you could provide them with the image of a butterfly on a note card that they take away — or they could record what they learned on the card and place it in a self-addressed, stamped envelope that’s sent back to them six weeks following the talk.

Co-create a story with the audience

With some stories, you can easily ask the audience questions and have them interact with you and the story in real time. To go a step further, you can actually have an audience co-create a story with you through the use of questions.

This is especially helpful in these situations:

  • You’ve told the story so many times that it’s lost its luster for you as the teller. Switch it up a bit by getting the audience involved in the telling. Spend some time in advance thinking about how you could do this.

  • The audience is one that likes to talk during a presentation. This can be cultural or an organizational nuance. Play off of this audience strength.

  • If you’re not getting the reaction that you normally get with the story, consider improvising in the moment. As a speaker, you should know the stories you tell really well and how audiences typically respond to them.

    If you normally get a laugh in a particular spot, but don’t get one — or if the audience seems disengaged (perhaps something happened ahead of the meeting to distract them) — go off script and find ways to get them to participate in the story.

What to do if you screw up the story

Oh, the mistakes we’ve made in telling stories. They happen! Even when you practice your story out loud dozens of times or have even told it for years.

You may say the opposite of what you intended to say when setting up a story. One solution would be to stop, turn in a complete circle, and say, “Take two” before starting over at the beginning. This gives the audience a chance to laugh before continuing on with you. These sorts of faux pas make you human. They are also opportunities to poke fun at yourself and generate humor.

When you make a mistake, the audience only gets as upset about it as you do. If you seem visibly flustered or thrown by the error, the audience will get upset, too. But if you seem relaxed and comfortable, and have fun with the mistake, then it becomes entertaining and the audience empathizes with you — and they love you even more for handling the situation gracefully.

If you notice that you’ve made a grammatical mistake — said words out of order or mispronounced a word — stop and correct yourself immediately. This automatically builds credibility. This is why you should pay close attention to your audience’s reactions as you speak. Many times when we misspeak, our own brains never tip us off because we're thinking about what we have to say next instead of what we just said.

If you say something backwards or mix up your words, you'll usually see it reflected on the faces of your audience — sometimes a chuckle, a puzzled look, or a quick shake of the head from one person. In most cases you can quickly replay your mental tape and realize what you said wrong.

Prepare for after the presentation

If you incorporate compelling stories into your presentations, people will approach you afterward to share their own story or comment on yours. So be ready for this.

This means you have to do two things:

  • Be very conscious of the stories you select to share. If you tell a story about a very difficult personal experience, audience members may feel compelled to share their own difficulties with you. The more revealing your story is, the more their stories will be too. Stories are like viruses; sharing a story sparks one in return. Always.

  • Be prepared to quickly shift from telling to listening mode. Center and ground yourself and pay attention to what people say. At the very least, express appreciation for the stories you hear. If you need to leave the room because others are using it after you, ask people to join you elsewhere to continue the conversation.

Purposefully build in time after your presentation for these interactions to happen. Be willing to put aside your own person needs for a bit to accommodate your audience’s needs (for example, you may want to process the content of what you just said on your own).

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