Nothing will pull an audience into your speech more than telling them a captivating story and unfortunately, I have to say, that many speakers miss the mark entirely when it comes to this. I have watched speakers go through an entire speech – some even as long as 25 -30 minutes without telling a single story. They make point after point and talk about ideas and concepts, but they don’t tell any stories to anchor those points and ideas. And I have to say, that these speakers are missing out on a big opportunity to really connect with their audience and drive their message home.
Today, more than ever, in a time when we are living in a world where there is so much chatter coming at us from all angles, we need to be able to distinguish ourselves by telling our unique stories to help cut through the static noise that we get bombarded with everyday so that we can get our message across. A great speech is one that leaves an audience with a take-away message that lasts longer than the time it takes for the audience to sit through your speech. In fact, most speakers don’t even accomplish that! When you effectively tell stories with anchored messages, it helps your audience hold onto the message of your speech for months, years or even a life time. That is the potential power you can have as a speaker as you will soon see.
The History of Storytelling
The medium of storytelling has been around for thousands of years and used to engage and connect with people and the masses. it’s also the medium that is used in schools today to teach and educate our children. However, somehow as we grew older, we lost touch with this great art. The bible is full of stories. The first book of the old testament, genesis, begins with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” And since the dawn of time, all great storytellers, from the ancient Greeks through Shakespeare and up to the present day, have dealt with this fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality.
Conflict is what people deal with in life on a daily basis. Your boss fires you, a big customer threatens to leave, your relationship with your spouse of 15 years goes up in flames. – Your life is thrown out of balance, and you seek to put it back. This is the essence of what we look for in story. Thousands of years ago, the problems and issues people had were not the same that we have today, but the conflict was still there. It was a different kind of conflict but the elements were still the same. And this hasn’t changed through thousands of years. From the walls of the caves in ancient Egypt, to the stage and theater in Shakespearean times, to today where the primary source of story is through film and television – the essence of story hasn’t changed, only the medium of which we tell it has.
The Powerful Effect of Story
Through the age’s, the power of storytelling was able move the masses to action for both good and evil. We saw it happen in our time to move people to evil , when Adolf Hitler used story to brainwash an entire nation to his way of thinking and he almost succeeded in taking over the world. In fact, this is precisely why Plato the famous Greek philosopher who was known as one of the best poets and storytellers in his time, put a ban on storytelling saying that, “Storytellers would conceal their ideas in the seductive emotions of art.” And this is exactly what Hitler did.
In contrast, we’ve also seen the power of story used for doing good. On September 12th 1962, John F. Kennedy delivered a captivating speech at Rice University where he envisioned and predicted that the United States would send a man to the moon before the end of the decade. And we succeeded and his vision was realized. Kennedy triumphed in rounding up an entire nation to this good cause, and he did it using the power of story. Because Kennedy was a visionary and was able to see the promise of the future, he was able to bestow that passion and vision on a nation. And he did it through the power of story. Although Kennedy didn’t realize it at the time, he was actually using “foreshadowing” which is a storytelling technique that has now become quite popular in the making of movies.
One of Plato’s prized students was Aristotle, whom we all know to be another famous Greek philosopher. Aristotle decided to write a piece called “Poetics” where he explained his beliefs on the art of story. In his essay, Aristotle outlined the framework of famous Greek tragedies and from this evolved the basic structure of a good story. And it’s this structure that has been used ever since in millions of books, movies and other storytelling mediums around the world.
Story is a Metaphor for Life
Robert McKee, the famous screenwriting guru who has trained thousands of successful screenwriters and novelists, and who also is the author of the popular book “story” said this; “story is a metaphor for life.” And what he meant by this is that we all look to story to try and make sense of our own lives. Have you ever watched a riveting drama and strongly identified with the character’s struggle? I’m sure you probably have. I know I have.
One movie that I remember watching where I had this kind of powerful identification with the protagonist ( main character) was when I saw “The Pursuit of Happyness” with Will Smith , and which was based on a true story about the life of Chris Gardner who struggled at a point in his life (like most of us) trying to make ends meet. His wife leaves him, and he is left with his 5 year old son living day-to-day, paycheck to paycheck, and eventually ends up being evicted and put on the streets. The story has a very powerful climactic ending where we become so happy for the character (Chris Gardner) because he was able to triumph against all odds. Doe this sounds familiar? The movie exemplifies the struggle of triumph over diversity -which is something that we can all easily reflect on within our own lives. And watching these kinds of stories allows us to reflect and make sense about what’s going on in our own lives. You see, we strongly connect with these characters because we could reflect their struggle to the struggle that we are going through in our own lives. Watching a character struggle against powerful adversity and then triumph gives us hope for our own future and makes us believe that we too can triumph and get through our own challenges.
When it comes to speaking, to be able to get our audience to reflect on their own lives, is the number one reason why we must tell stories to our audiences. When our audience hears us talk about our own experience, they can take our experience and parallel it to what they are going through in their own lives. In fact, I remember a number of months ago a woman in one of my audiences who walked up to me after delivering a speech and she said, “ Lewis, I really needed to hear that message today. Your story about triumphing over your fear really hit home. Thank you!”
That experience reinforced in me as to why we as speakers are up there in the first place talking to our audiences. We are there to make a connection and leave them with an important message. And telling stories, not only is the best way to engage and captivate an audience, but it’s the way that will allow our audiences to take our stories and our experiences and reflect and make sense of what’s going on in their own lives. So in conclusion, don’t just make points like most speakers out there do when they deliver their speeches. Instead, do as the founder of the national speakers association Bill Gove had once said, “Tell a story and make a point.”