Although there are as many styles and techniques as there are topics and speakers, there is one truth that I think is universal and pretty much undeniable: STORIES BEAT STATISTICS EVERY TIME. “Once upon a time…” has worked for 10,000 years because people love a story. If you say, “Once I was on a cruise ship when something happened that changed my life forever,” you’ve hooked them.
Although your own personal stories will have impact because the audience is hearing it from the source, stories about other people can be equally effective when you match the anecdote with the point you want to make. Here’s one I tell in one of my speeches:
“Thomas Edison had been working on one of his most famous inventions for years, hadn’t found the missing part of the puzzle that would make it work. One day a young reporter said, ‘Mr. Edison, don’t you get discouraged by all these failures?’ Mr. Edison said, ‘Failures? Son, I don’t have failures. I’ll have you know that in only three years I have discovered more than 9,000 ways a light bulb won’t work’.”
The story makes the point that “Successful people don’t have failures, just results: they try something, learn from it, and move on.” The humorous punch line is a bonus, because another truth is that Everybody Loves to Laugh. Just remember Shakespeare’s advice: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
I rewrote and rehearsed that story a dozen times before I performed it onstage, which is essential. DO NOT make a notation like “tell the Edison story here” and then never think about it again until you’re onstage. That’s insanity. Tell the story to an actual person if you can, to the mirror if you can’t, aloud when you’re driving or under your breath when you’re flying. I’ve found that if you rehearse telling a one-minute story five times, you’ll improve it every time, even if it’s just by changing or cutting a word. Tell it ten times aloud and you’ll own it.
I show a slide of Edison when I tell that story, because people love images. They help bring the story to life, and they can be an extremely effective part of your presentation. If nothing else, they give the audience something other than YOU to look at for a little variety.
Another example of the power of storytelling: if you’re talking about giving good Customer Service, you might say something like, “If you’re pleasant to potential customers and extend a courtesy that they’re not expecting, you’ll stand a much better chance of selling them something sometime in the future.”
O-o-o-kay (yawn), makes sense. But if you then go on to your next point, the audience will be bored. If instead you replace that dull line with a story, you’ll have their full attention. “One day a thunderstorm suddenly came up in a small town and the manager of a furniture store noticed that a lady he didn’t know had taken cover under the awning at the entrance to his store. He invited her to come in from the weather, she thanked him and he left. A few minutes later he appeared carrying a chair and invited her to sit down and stay as long as she liked. He disappeared again, and a few minutes later a young woman walked over with a cup of tea and said her manager thought the lady might enjoy it while she waited. No one ever tried to sell her anything, and when the storm passed she left. Several days later she came to the store and thanked the manager for his kindness and told him she and her husband, the president of a huge corporation, had just moved to the town and had purchased a new home. She then proceeded to purchase more furniture than the store usually sold in two months because, she said, ‘When given the choice, I’ll always do business with someone I know to be kind and generous’.”
Obviously the man’s kindness to a stranger paid off, and if you tell interesting, pithy stories, they’ll pay off for you.