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Story telling in speeches

Tips and techniques to improve your speech with stories

By: Susan Dugdale | Last modified: 27-02-2020 | First published: 01-07-2007

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.

Shall we get started?

How to choose what story to tell

Image: water color background. Text: Tips to making telling stories in speeches a success.

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, topic and purpose

Story telling without a specific purpose will go down like the proverbial lead balloon.

What do you want your audience to do, or feel as they listen to your story? 

  • If you want to spur them into action to make a change, try the classic 'before and after story' format focusing on how the change can be made and the benefits to be gained. 
  • If you want your audience to see you, the story teller, as one of them, someone who knows what it's like to be in a similar position, then share a personal story illustrating your vulnerability or a segment of your journey from failure to success.
  • If you want your audience to connect with others, to find their similarities rather than their differences, tell stories with a universal appeal that prompt a 'yes, that's me as well' response. I've felt like that too.

To work as you want it to, a story must fit your audience, your purpose and you must be credible telling it. You need to keep it real.

If you can, and it's appropriate, 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.

The power of a good story is that it humanizes; reaching across barriers to bring us home to the heart of ourselves and, each other.  A story helps us feel, think, know and understand. 

Here's an example of a personal story to illustrate

It is a true story from my youth. I told it to students as part of preparing them for formal job interviews. It's from my extensive what-not-to-do department. The story made them laugh, relax, and hopefully they learned a little 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, as straight backed as the chair I was sitting on, listening very carefully to the questions and answering each of them 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.

The purpose behind telling my story was to help my students understand the importance of asking for clarification if they don't understand the question or if it seems out of context. They needed to be able to ask the interviewer to rephrase it in words they knew.

(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.)


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.

Practice

Learn it rather than read it. Good story telling 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 click the link: characterization techniques. 

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.

Image: cartoon of bored girl. Text: Story telling set ups. Some work better than others.

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.

Do you know the expression: I wish the ground had opened up and swallowed me? It refers to the embarrassment of getting something wrong, and wanting to be out the situation, out of people's sight, as fast as possible. It's not a pleasant place to be - a lesson I've learned the hard way!

Do try your story out. I've got helpful information here: how to rehearse your speech.

PS

I got that job!

PPS. Find out more about delivering a story well

Image: retro woman with

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.

Is your speech writing "blah, blah, bland"?

Discover how action verbs make your writing vocally vibrant, succinct and precise.