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The Secrets to Telling a Great Story

The number one way to get your audience to know, like, and trust you is with a personal story. Stories are ideal for inspiring action, selling products, giving meaning to data and research, and teaching. I have never been inspired by a speech or significantly impacted by a presentation that did not include a story. […]

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The number one way to get your audience to know, like, and trust you is with a personal story. Stories are ideal for inspiring action, selling products, giving meaning to data and research, and teaching. I have never been inspired by a speech or significantly impacted by a presentation that did not include a story. Without one, your audience has no way of relating to you or emotionally connecting with you. Therefore, they are less likely to listen to you, engage with you, or remember anything you said. Filmmaker Andrew Stanton says the number one commandment of storytelling is to make me care in his TED Talk, The Clues to a Great Story.

Knowing that storytelling is essential to making people care, my clients want to use them, but they’re not sure how. I’m often asked; What kind of story should I tell?  How do I incorporate a story into my business presentation?  The answer depends on your goal.

Your audience must know, like, and trust you, no matter what you’re speaking about. So I find it’s often easiest to begin a presentation with a personal story designed to do just that. A personal story creates a connection with the audience, making you relatable. Be careful not to simply share your bio. Tell a personal story that reveals something about who you are, where you’re from, or what you value. The more vulnerable the story you share, the more powerful the connection will be, and the more the audience will care.

If your goal is to sell a product or service, tell a story relevant to the problem you will solve. This lets your audience know you understand them. Was there a time when you were in their shoes? Was there a time when you had the same problem?  Additionally, share a client or customer success story at another point in the presentation.

When presenting research or data, tell the story of a person (real or made up) who is directly impacted by your data/research. What do the numbers mean? What does the data look like in real life? What are the implications for your business? The audience is less interested in how you did your research and more interested in what you learned from it.

To rally and inspire people around a cause, tell a story that compares the status quo to what could be. What is life like now? vs. What could life look like if only (insert the action you want them to take). Presentation expert Nancy Duarte illustrates this type of story beautifully in her TED Talk, The Secret Structure of Great Talks.

To entertain, tell a funny story with a surprising turn of events. Everyone likes an unexpected twist or ending.

Regardless of the type of story, you are telling, here are the elements that make a great story.

  • A likable main character. In a personal story, this will be you, but in other stories, it may be the audience or the people impacted by your research or service.
  • The main character changes. For example, who were you before, and who were you after the events in the story? What did you think/believe before, and what did you know/believe after the main event? What was life like with the problem, and what was it like after you solved the problem?
  • The story has a clear purpose with a clear beginning, middle, and end. You know exactly where you are leading us.
  • Include a lot of descriptive details. It helps to visualize the people and places as you tell the story. Appeal to our senses, describe what things looked like, how things sounded, tasted, smelled, and felt.
  • Make us laugh. Stories are great opportunities for humor. Do not be afraid to make fun of yourself a little. Self-deprecating humor is the safest kind.
  • Teach us what to think. As the storyteller, you have the power to influence how we think and feel about the people and events in your story. Your tone, inflection, and facial expressions inform whose side we are on, what we should like and dislike, and when to cry or cheer. Your power is in your delivery.
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