Story telling in speeches

Do you remember story telling from your childhood?

I do.

Image - quote on water color background: The universe is made of stories, not atoms. Muriel Rukeyser - The Speed of Darkness.

Some stories are as clear in my mind as if I heard them yesterday. I can remember who was telling the story, what it was about, what the actual words were and most of all, how I felt listening to it.

And that's the power of good story telling. It lives on in the memory of the listener for years and years.

No matter how old we are we can still be captivated by a story told well. That's why including stories as part of any speech you give will enhance it immeasurably.

Obviously there are some guidelines to follow. It's not just any story you tell or of any length. And there are specific ways to improve your story telling.

Let's get started.

How to choose what story to tell

Storytelling tips button

Begin with your audience

You need to know who they are, what their likes and dislikes are, to get an idea of what you can, and can't tell them.

The treatment or how you tell your story will vary between audiences, just as humor does. What is funny to one group may not be to another. It is safer to know rather than guess and risk silence.

Fit your story to your theme or topic

Storytelling without purpose will go down like the proverbial lead balloon. Tell stories that provide examples for the points you are making.

Make your stories personal

The audience will love you for it. Use your own experiences to poke a little fun at yourself. Exposing your fears, habits, or misunderstandings lets the audience identify with you. You stop being the remote expert and become one of them.

Here's an example from me to illustrate

This is a true story from my youth. I've told it to students as part of preparing them for formal job interviews. It's from the what-not-to-do department. It had the effect of making them laugh, relax, and learn from my naivety.

I was 22 and at my first real job interview - hair clean, best clothes, shoes polished. I'd brought my CV, references and my certificates and I really wanted the job. I sat upright, listening very carefully to the questions and answering thoroughly.

Suddenly towards the end, the interviewer leaned forward, fixed his eyes on mine and said quietly, "Have you any convictions?"

I blushed. He waited.

Taking a deep breath, I began. "I've got lots of *convictions."
He stared but I plunged boldly on. "Yes", I said. "I believe in 'do unto others as you would have done to yourself'. I think it's really important to try to understand what it's like to be in another person's shoes. I also believe ..."

I never finished the sentence because the interviewer was snorting with laughter.

*The word "convictions" has several meanings. One is to have been found guilty or convicted of a crime by a court of law which is the meaning the interviewer intended. Another is to hold strong beliefs which was how I interpreted the word.

(And now that I am much older I also realize how unconsciously privileged I was as a young girl. It would never have occurred to me that someone would even think to ask me that question.)

The moral of my story: get clarification if you don't understand the question or it seems out of context. Ask the interviewer to rephrase it in words you know.

Having selected your story improve your telling by:

Keeping it short

If you go on too long, the impact is lost and you stray too far from your original purpose which was to give an effective example of a point you were making.

Eliminating all the inconsequential detail

The rule is if it doesn't add to the story - cut it out. Too much fluff weakens the impact.


Learn it rather than read it. Good storytelling is active and direct.

Reading will not give you immediate contact with your audience because you have to keep returning to a text. Without it, you're free to deliver one line to the man at the back, an aside to the woman at the front etc. etc.

The more practice you give yourself the better you'll become.

Varying your voice

Try different voices for different characters. Find where to pause, where to stress a word and where to go faster and do what you're saying.

For example, if you're talking about being happy then reflect it in your body, in your voice. Show it as well as tell it!

Remember great storytelling is active rather than passive.

For more specific information on characterization techniques click the link.

Rehearsing in front of a few trusted friends to get their feedback

Find out if your story works before trying it out in a more public arena.

Introducing your story well

Did you know there are more effective ways than others to introduce or lead into your story?

Read about the best storytelling setups here.

1950s retro graphic - a woman with a piece of string tied around her finger. A reminder to add variety - monotony is boring!

I did get that job!

There's easy-to-follow help with vocal delivery here: varying your speech rate, using pauses effectively, changing pitch and tone, projection, breathing, and more.

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