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Story telling setups: what works & why

How to successfully introduce stories in speeches

By: Susan Dugdale | Last modified: 04-30-2021

Some storytelling setups, (the way you lead in, or introduce a story as part of a speech), are much more successful than others.

Get it right and you'll have your audience enthralled, hanging off your every word. 

Get it wrong and your audience will have turned their ears off as fast as if you'd flicked a switch. 

Have you ever had a story fall flat?

If you've had the experience of a story failing to fire, yet you know it was relevant to your audience, and your speech, maybe the way you introduce it needs fine tuning.

The best story telling setups sneak up on an audience capturing their attention before they've had an opportunity to zone out. They do it without fanfare. The drums do not beat loudly. The trumpets do not herald their arrival.

From the 'how NOT to open a story' department

Speakers who skillfully weave story telling into their speeches tend not use these introductions:

  • That reminds me of a really funny story...
  • Have you heard the one about ...?
  • I heard a great joke the other day. You're going to love it.
  • I don't know whether I should tell you this but ...

Image: Cartoon stick figure waving a red flag. Text: Dangerous Story Starters - use with caution.

All of those  introductions are dangerous. They come waving big red warning flags. 

"Hey!", they shout at the audience, "There's a story coming up!  I want you to be amused by it. I want you to laugh!" 

What's the problem with these openings?

The problem is that they give your audience a chance to pit themselves against you.  Fortunately that's not usually out loud. So they're not shouting back at you.

However in the privacy of their own minds they're beginning to wonder whether they want to listen to you.

Let me show you how it works.

That reminds me of a REALLY funny story

In the first example, "That reminds me of a really funny story", you've created several hurdles for yourself to get over before you even get to telling your story.

The first is that you have said you are, "telling a story". Your audience may interpret that as you are about to tell them something fictional,  perhaps a lie, and worse, completely irrelevant.

The second hurdle is that you've told them it's "really funny".

While some people don't want to listen to "make believe",  many more don't want to be told something is funny before they experience the funniness for themselves. They want to make up their own minds about what is amusing and what is not. (Thank you very much. Please don't waste my time!)

Have you heard the one about ...? and other gems

Using "Have you heard the one about ... ?" as an opener sets your story up as a yarn or a joke that is going the rounds.

Someone told it to me. They got it from someone else, who got it from someone else, and now I'm telling it to you. It's not personal experience, or even a new story, and therefore it can be dismissed very easily. Boring. Not original. A total turn off.

"I heard a great joke the other day ..." fits into the same slot as the starter above with the added loaded inference that the word "joke" carries. This is funny. You will laugh. Because I say so.

The last example, "I don't know whether I should tell you this ..." invites the response, "No, you shouldn't", in the mind of your audience before your story has begun.

Do you see what's happening?

So what story telling setups do work?

Image: Smiling young woman. Text: Better story telling set ups with examples.

The ideal is an opener that doesn't appear to be one. It has the audience involved, listening attentively without pausing to consider whether they want to, or not. 

Even though it precedes the actual story, it does not create an opportunity for the same inner resistance as the examples above do.

1. Invitations to imagine

Openers actively engaging the audience's imagination are effective. They invite partnership,  togetherness, a shared journey.

Try:

  • I want you to visualize ...
  • Imagine ...
  • Let's step back in time ...
  • Come with me ...

Do you see the difference?

2. Making it personal

Setting your story as part of your personal experience works well. These invite your audience to share an aspect of your life, to trust and to identify with you.

Consider these:

  • Just yesterday I was talking with a friend ...
  • On my way to work this morning ...
  • My wife thinks I ...
  • My phone rang. It was ...
  • I was in XXXX (insert name of local shop/restaurant etc) when...
  • Last summer ...

3. Rhetorical questions - silly & serious

If it fits your speech you could also experiment with story telling setups based on rhetorical questions. As well as straight or serious questions, try some obviously ridiculous ones to grab your audience's attention. 

Examples of both are:

  • How many years have you been 40?
  • Is it true that diamonds are a girls best friend?
  • Do you remember when the sky was always blue and summer was endless?
  • Why is it that whenever you're late, you can never find a car park?
  • Why should we care about others?
  • Who decides what is fashionable and what is not?
  • How come it always rains when it's holiday time?
  • How come so many people are described as "average"?

Try multiple openings

When you're writing or rehearsing your speech try several setups before settling on the one you're definitely going to use. Listen for "rightness" of fit to your story, your speech,  and your audience.

PS. Consider endings too

Just as there are seamless ways of entering a story, so too there are slicker ways to exist.

You do not have to announce, "By the way, that's the end of the story".

Instead try a pause, a change of tone, a shift in body language or speaking rate. All of these signal the start of a new segment without saying anything.

For more about storytelling in speeches please visit ...

Image: Water color background. Text: Tips to make storytelling in speeches successful.