Engage your audience, focus your narrative, and inspire action.
You’ve heard dozens of times that you’re more likely to engage your audience when you tell a story in your presentation. A story that’s powerful and relevant can galvanize people and inspire action. But even otherwise great stories can be told badly. Here are few pitfalls you’ll need to avoid to make sure you don’t sabotage your own storytelling.
TOO MUCH BACKGROUND – DROP THE BIG WIND-UP: Set the scene in most concise way possible, only what is need to know to comprehend the key takeaway. Even state the point first.
Your audience won’t understand your story without at least some background information. But that doesn’t mean they need to know every little thing, so drop the big wind-up. Instead, set the scene for your audience in the most concise way possible, telling them only what they need to know to comprehend your key takeaway.
If you find yourself struggling with this, state the point of the story first (yes, give it away!), and then explain the context. Not only will listeners know where you’re heading, it will also prevent you from running out of time before getting to your main message. No one likes an unfinished narrative.
Show don’t tell: People want action and dialogue more than facts. Even small doses of narrative evidence can go a long way to backing up the point you want your story to make.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” This classic piece of advice for fiction writing also applies to storytelling for public speakers. No one wants to hear you spout facts for half an hour—they want action and dialogue (more on that later). For example, I was recently working with a client who told a story about visiting a few of her company’s facilities and being struck by how engaged everyone was. I asked her, “How did you know they were engaged?” She replied, “Everywhere I went, they asked me, ‘Why are we doing x?’ ‘What could we do to improve y?’” It was a helpful example to support her assertion, and as simple as it was, it let me visualize her interactions with employees. Even small doses of narrative evidence can go a long way to backing up the point you want your story to make.
A minute and a half for a story
Humans have a short attention span–frequently a matter of mere seconds before losing focus. If your story is too drawn out, you risk losing your audience’s attention. But how long is too long? Think of it like a basketball shot clock, which gives players just 24 seconds to get the ball in the basket to keep the game moving. Then apply that logic to storytelling.
I know it sounds brief, but an ideal length is between 1:30 and 1:45. That’s all you really need to get in a good anecdote before moving on to the next piece of your message. When you start getting close to that two-minute mark, you need to start wrapping up your narrative. In public speaking contexts, anyhow, effective storytelling is brief storytelling.
Include dialogue to bring story to life
You need dialogue to bring a story to life, and one line can make for a great climax. For example, I was recently working with a Dutch client who told me how, in her view, the Dutch typically have a strong, independent, self-sufficient spirit. I told her I understood exactly what she was talking about. I told her a story about being at a hotel brunch in Amsterdam many years ago. I wanted champagne, but the bottle was unopened. So I asked a server, “Could you please open this bottle for me?” She abruptly replied, “Can’t you do it yourself?” That snippet of dialogue–the quote from the server–was the climax of the anecdote, the thing that simultaneously tied up the story and made it effective.
Don’t go on unneccessary detours
Don’t go off on tangents when you’re building up the action of your story. You don’t want to lose momentum and confuse your audience by discussing something that doesn’t contribute to your main point. Let’s go back to my champagne bottle story. Say I started by describing the brunch spread right after I mentioned the champagne bottle–the story would’ve fallen flat. My client didn’t need to know what kind of pastries they were serving; all she needed to hear was what the server said about uncorking the champagne bottle.
You’re telling a story to make your presentation engaging, which means that how you tell it matters just as much as what the narrative entails. Avoid these traps, and you won’t just tell better stories, you’ll maximize the impact of your overall message, and maybe even leave your audience wanting more.
Psychology Today details 8 Tips to Make You a Great Story Teller. Though they are focused more on casual storytelling, these tips are good to keep in mind, like being aware of your audience and setting context. How to Tell a Great Story from Harvard Business Review, includes advice on telling stories that persuade – creating compelling moments linked to emotion
BY RICH BELLIS6 MINUTE READ
You’re a grownup with a job, plenty of good ideas, and expertise. That’s why you find yourself presenting to a roomful of your coworkers, or possibly to an auditorium packed with business leaders. And yet you feel like a fifth-grader struggling to explain the plot of Inception to your biggest crush: Why are you so nervous? Was that last detail even right? Is anything in here making any sense at all?!
Relax. With a little practice, you can learn to speak more clearly, confidently, and naturally. To find out how, Fast Company asked five hosts of some of the most popular podcasts to share their speaking tips.
SILENCE IS WORSE THAN “UMS” AND “LIKES”
When I asked Guy Raz, host of NPR’s How I Built This podcast, which explores innovation and entrepreneurship, whether he makes a conscious effort to cut so-called “filler words” from his speech, he replied, “Nope. Um, I like, use them, like they are a giant bowlful of, um, gummy bears on my, um, desk, you know?”
Lindsey Weber, who cohosts the celebrity podcast Who? Weekly with Bobby Finger, doesn’t worry about those “um”s and “ya know”s either. They add “personality,” she says, so it would be crazy to cut every single one of them. Part of what people like about conversational pods is that they feel natural,” Weber explains–and the same is likely true of most speeches, talks, and presentations, where there’s actually a risk to sounding too formal and stiff.
Weber acknowledges that she and Finger both “have a serious ‘like’ problem” and that they “try to avoid repetition,” but Finger adds that filler words “don’t bug me as long as they’re immediately followed by a thought.” As he sees it, dead airtime is a much bigger killer than any “like” or “um.”
JOT NOTES, REHEARSE WITH THEM, THEN THROW THEM OUT
But preserving a natural vibe doesn’t mean improvising completely. Being in the moment still takes some preparation and practice.
As Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC Studios’s Note to Self, points out, “People who sound like they aren’t reading from a script are probably really good writers. They know how people talk, little nuances, and how to structure sentences so they sound natural.” But “this is not a gift,” she emphasizes. “It takes practice and doing it over and over again.”
Even Weber and Finger, who’ve always done Who? Weekly off the cuff, share a very messy Google doc between the two of them. That’s where, as Weber explains, “We lay out the episode’s topics as well as various links and research we’ve done.” Doing this prep work allows them to riff when it’s time to record an episode. “I think the improvisation just comes with knowledge of the material,” says Finger.
That’s true for Glynn Washington as well, who’s a colleague of Zomorodi’s at WNYC, where he hosts the storytelling podcast Snap Judgment. “Everything starts on the page,” says Washington. “Only after I get it right on paper can I throw the paper away. If I happen to sound both clear and casual at the same time,” he continues, “that means I have spent time crafting what I am saying. No one wants to hear my unfocused, unrehearsed babble. The performance is the final step of a longer process.”
For Zomorodi, that process is all about getting to know your notes so well that you can ditch them: “Read your script, underline words that you want to punch, say it out loud over and over again, record yourself, listen back while you walk around, make changes, read it again,” she advises, “almost to the point where you don’t need the script. When you feel the words and why you wrote them when you talk, that’s when you know you are nailing it.”
Finally, “In order to nail the performance,” says Washington, “I first set the stage in my mind. I imagine walking up to a card table with a bunch of my uncles shouting through a heated game of Spades. As I approach, magically, they all turn, and shut up long enough to allow me to speak (this would never happen). Whatever I say has to fit that [imaginary] moment.”
ALWAYS ASK FOR FEEDBACK
According to Washington, “The best thing that any creative person can have is someone to let them know when they’re getting it right–and when they’re falling short.” It’s one thing to practice alone in a room; it’s another to do a dry run for a trusted audience. “You may not know the person that can tell you the truth,” Washington adds, since the people we’re closest with aren’t always great sources of unvarnished feedback. “It might not be your mom or boyfriend or uncle or friend. But find them!”
As cohosts, Finger and Weber serve this role for one another. “We are always telling each other to wrap it up,” says Finger. “You can tell while speaking if something is going to drag for the audiences, so after recording, we usually chat about what worked/what didn’t/what we should save for another episode.” These quick recaps help them both retool and nail it the next time.
IT’S OKAY TO GESTURE–JUST DO IT RIGHT
“When I’m speaking into the microphone, my hands are flailing!” Washington confesses. “I’m gesticulating. Prowling. Laughing. I need a lot of space! You may not see any of that, but I think you hear it.”
Using your hands can be a great way to add emphasis and force to what you’re saying, but Washington knows he can get away with more when his audience is only listening to him, not watching. Before getting back into radio, Zomorodi had been doing a lot of TV, so she’d trained herself not to use her hands while speaking. But, she points out, “All that energy needs to go somewhere, and I find that I strain my voice less when I can let my body relax and emote, too.” Fortunately, there are a few ways to gesture meaningfully without looking ridiculous–here are a few tips.
If you find that you’re a hopeless hand talker, then at least clear the podium or table in front of you to avoid any mishaps. “Sometimes I fidget with things on my desk, which–hey, I’m stupid–make noises in the podcast!” says Finger. “So I generally have to remove all coins [and] knick-knacks from my area before recording, or you’ll hear taps and clicks and clonks.”
DON’T TRY TO SOUND LIKE SOMEONE ELSE
Early on, Zomorodi says she had to stop trying to speak “like a ‘broadcast reporter’–just the facts–without any personality,” as she was trained to do at the BBC and Reuters. Raz agrees that authenticity matters: “I tried to sound like Robert Siegel [the longtime host of All Things Considered] because I thought that’s what an NPR host should sound like. It took me a while to grow comfortable with my own voice and mannerisms.”
To get this right, Weber draws a useful distinction: “We don’t really care about sounding ‘professional.’ I guess really the only thing we do care about–and are still working on!–is making sure we sound good. This is not the easiest thing for us,” she adds, “as we aren’t trained sound engineers and do our own production.” Much of the time, you’ll sound good simply when you sound like yourself.
On this last point, Weber adds, “I think the idea of ‘vocal fry’ is a sexist myth, so when people accuse us of that, I refuse to give a shit.”