I was recently coaching a C-suite executive from a multi-billion-dollar company. He started telling me about his background and told me he was from Mumbai. Having spent time in Mumbai, I asked: “where in Mumbai?”
“From the slums of Mumbai,” he answered, “My mother had me when she was 16. She made me study–in the middle of relentless chaos–she made me study.”
His answer immediately stood out to me for two reasons. One, his mother made a huge difference in his life. Two, in just a few sentences, he encapsulated the elements of telling a great story.
As a speaker (or an audience member who has listened to great speeches), you’re probably familiar with the impact of a great story. As television personality Jason Silva told Fast Company‘s Joe Berkowitz in a 2014 article, “Our humanness is built on the ability to understand ourselves in the context of a story, so we’re basically hardwired for stories.”A great story lures your listeners in and allows them to experience your journey with you in a way that cold hard facts cannot.
A compelling narrative, however, needs to have three elements. So the next time you think about incorporating an anecdote in your speech, make sure that you do these things below:
If I said to you, “get in my car,” you’ll probably ask me, “Where are we going?”
Think of your speech like a destination. Your audience wants to know where you’re going. The more your listeners can anticipate where you’re going, the more engaged they become.
I bought a kids game, Shark Attack, for Thanksgiving. With a plastic hook, you need to yank the fish out of the shark’s mouth. However, at any moment, the shark’s mouth springs up and chomps. It was hilarious–we knew the shark would bite–but we didn’t know when.
This was a game of anticipation, something that’s crucial in great storytelling. By telling your audience what they can expect up front (but without sharing when it will happen), you build anticipation without giving away too much of your speech.
Share personal experiences
When I asked my client–who’d been an admiral in the navy in wartime–“What was the best moment of your career?” He looked at me, and without pause, he said, “coming home.”
His words hit me. How many times have you been traveling for work, or even exploring for pleasure, but found that the best moment was the feeling you get when you arrive home? What makes that story so compelling is the personal connection. Movies and television rely on strong visual imagery to let you experience a different world, but as a speaker, you have to rely on your authenticity and ability to connect with your listeners. That starts with telling a story that contains personal feelings your audience can identify.
Now, you may feel tempted to repeat a good story you just heard, but you’ll have so much more power as a speaker when you tell your own stories. When you tell someone else’s story, you focus on getting the words right. When you talk about your personal stories, you focus on the experience.
For example, I was so excited to get front-row seats to see Bette Midler. I couldn’t wait to hear her sing “The Rose” to me in the front row. But then she came on stage and began talking. It turns out that I hadn’t read the fine print and she was there to give a speech about her trash project (Park Restoration), not to perform. But once I recovered, I was so amazed at how she could share her experiences so vividly like a great actress and demonstrated that great storytelling is about revealing the feelings that are at the core of the experience–not just in the events.
Keep it short
A good story should be about one minute and 30 seconds to two minutes and 30 seconds max. It’s just like driving, if you take too many detours, you’re likely to get lost.
Similarly, so many speakers add too many details about the characters–their clothes, their backgrounds, their culture, their history, and their ancestry. They leave the audience more confused than engaged because they leave them wondering where all this is going.
Let’s say I told you that I was sitting with my husband, who is a psychologist and also a big fan of Bette Midler, and we had seen Bette Midler perform in New York and we’d paid over $100 per ticket, and that was big dollars back years ago. Would you care about all these details? At best, a little–at worst, not at all.
Think about what you want to hear if you were listening to a person tell their story. Chances are, you won’t be thrilled if they launch into a monologue.