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Creating and Using Stories in Your Speeches. The Power of Stories

By Patti A. Wood, MA

Before my mother was married, she worked in a drugstore in Miami Beach during World War II. One night she went out dancing in a hotel ballroom in South Beach. As she was jitterbugging on the dance floor to the big band sound, she looked across the dance floor and saw this cute blond guy. She stopped dancing and said, "Oh my gosh. That’s him.” My dad was dancing in the same ballroom, looked across the dance floor and saw for the first time this cute blonde girl and he said, “Oh my gosh. That’s her.” That was on a Wednesday night. On Saturday my father went out and bought a red convertible and an engagement ring. The following Wednesday they got married, and the next day the two of them drove off in that red convertible to Seattle, Washington.

How did that story affect you? Did it capture your attention? Did it bring forth memories of your own? That one paragraph story is at the beginning of one of my keynote speeches on the power of first impressions. I’ve watched hundreds of audiences hearing that story magically transform from distracted, bored or disinterested audience members into entranced, engaged and entertained listeners.

In this article, we will examine how using stories in your speeches can

1) Create a more attentive and interested audience;

2) Provide a safe way for you to talk about controversial or sensitive topics;

3) Give you a unique opportunity to change minds and behavior;

4) Make your message easier to understand and remember;

5) Provide a personal connection with your audience;

6) Enliven your delivery and energize the audience.

If you think you can’t use stories because you are dealing with a business topic or a technical audience, think again. All those political and spiritual leaders who have used storytelling over the centuries can’t be wrong. No matter who your audience or what your topic, the power of stories is phenomenal.

1. Stories help create attentive and interested audiences.

I was about to speak to 200 drunk sales representatives. The two-hour open bar and free wine before, during and after dinner had created a crowd as raucous and rowdy as cowboys on payday in a wild-west saloon. The men were whistling, making catcalls, talking and laughing loudly as their national president introduced the president of the international association. As the second man spoke about the direction of their association, the audience members just got louder. In horror, I watched as servers began dispensing dessert wine. If this is how they treat their presidents, how will they treat me, I wondered? As I madly searched my mind for a different opener than the group exercise I had planned, the president began to introduce me. At least I think he was introducing me. The room was so loud at this point that I only saw his lips move before he waved me up on the stage. Page 2

I stood silently up on stage—all 5 feet and 101 pounds of me—and didn’ t move. I was absolutely still and then I began the story of how my parents met. I asked for a show of hands for who had parents who had lived through World War II. I asked them if they had sweeties whom they instantly knew were “the ones.” The audience got quieter and began to listen. I used body language, voice inflections and gestures in my story. And the power of storytelling worked once again. I managed to gain the attention of what seemed an impossibly distracted audience.

Stories capture us by focusing our attention on something new. If we go to work and see the same old thing every day, and then one day we suddenly see a rose on the reception desk, our attention will be grabbed by the rose. It’ s something new, different. Our roving hunter ancestors had to constantly scan their environment for the new in order to survive and thrive. If a primitive hunter found tiger droppings in his environment, he knew it was time for a change of scenery. If she noticed new berries, she might have discovered a food source.

Your audience members are also subconsciously scanning for the new and different in order to focus their attention. If everyone in your meeting begins their presentation with “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” and you do the same thing, you will not create something new to capture the audience’ s attention. However, a story immediately alerts the audience that they are going to hear something new and different. They will stop thinking about their voice mail and e-mail messages piling up. They won’ t hear the whine of the room’ s air conditioner. Instead, it’ s as if they enter a trance—they become “entranced” – entering your world and the new world you are creating through story. This is not the spooky “you are getting sleepy” trance we associate with bad black and white horror movies, but a scientifically verifiable altered state: “A period of concentration when a person is aware of the vividness of inner mental and sensory experience, and therefore external stimuli such as sounds and movements assume lesser importance.” (Erickson and Rossi, Hypnotherapy)

Stories invite your audience to use all of their emotions and senses. This creates a level of attention and involvement that a data dump of facts and figures can never maintain.

2. Stories provide a safe way to talk about controversial or sensitive topics.

A speaker was relating the story from the book “Who Moved My Cheese” by Spencer Johnson. In it the mice have great difficulty changing their path through the maze even when the end of the old path has no cheese. The audience laughed as the mice complained about the “company moving their cheese” and listened as a mouse became discouraged and bitter. The audience was able to hear about the faults of the mice as observers and then move into a place where they could identify with certain characteristics of the mice and eventually laugh at themselves.

If instead of telling this story, the speaker had said, “You’ re not changing fast enough. You’ re being stubborn and stupid. Try something new,” the audience would have closed up as tight as a child’ s mouth to a spoonful of castor oil. Stories offer characters who aren’ t us, but who are like us in many ways. They give us distance on the situation and yet simultaneously offer us the opportunity to examine that situation. Page 3

3. Stories give you a unique power to change minds and behavior.

In one of my favorite books, “ The Care of the Soul,” Thomas More suggests, ”There are four pathways for inner expedition: silence, song, dance and storytelling.” Sometimes you need to position your audience to be willing to take that inner expedition. As More notes, storytelling can be an effective way to get them in that position.

The reason for this is that stories rich in sensory detail and symbolic content are processed in the creative right hemisphere of the brain. If they linger there without interpretation by the logical and judgmental left hemisphere, they can reach deep within us and allow us to see the world and to see ourselves from a new perspective. This enables us to accept change.

4. Stories connect you to your audience on a personal level.

When we reach deep down into our psyche to find a story and share it, we allow the audience to also reach down into their psyches. The journey we take together bonds us. We share stories in the same primal and communal way that we share a good meal. Time slows down as we linger over a beautiful image or as we slowly taste the details. We laugh at a hearty piece of humor. Together we slowly digest the potent message.

When I tell the story about my parents meeting on the dance floor, audiences tell me they think about their spouses, their own parents and their childhood sweethearts. They connect their lives to the story, thus linking their lives to mine. We form a relationship in 60 seconds. When I mention that when I was a teenager my mother said she and my father never had premarital sex and my response was"… anyone could wait a week, the audience shares in the laughter and the bond is strengthened.

Stories we gather from our families, our co-workers and our customers, stories of success about products and services don’ t simply transfer facts. They transform audiences with the sharing of universal experiences. We sit around the primordial campfire and say, that was good.

5. Stories make your message easier to understand and remember.

Stories are often rich in sensory information with their sights, sounds, smells, tastes and emotions. All these sensory details engage the right hemisphere where the strongest links to memory reside. Think about your favorite childhood meal. Immediately you can conjure up the details of the kitchen where you sat as a child, the mother or father who cooked the meal or the happiness you felt, knowing you were getting something good to eat. The sensory details in a story enable your listeners to “ embody” your message.

In college I had a teacher who gave wonderfully organized lectures, loaded with facts and logically presented material, but I don’ t remember any of the information. I do remember almost every lecture my mythology professor gave. He told us stories of heroes and villains, of fires and flood, of love and death. These stories engaged our emotions, not just our intellects. No statistic or pie chart will linger in the memory the way the story of Adam and Eve will. Page 4

6. Stories will enliven your delivery and energize the audience.

Your whole body can get involved in storytelling--your voice, your physical movements, your gestures and facial expressions. This enlivens your body language and makes your voice more dramatic. These visual movements and auditory enhancements energize your audience, and because nonverbal cues are processed in the right hemisphere, they have more power to persuade your audience. Your audience will respond to your presentation on a visceral level and will associate your speech with a positive feeling.

Finding Effective Stories

Now that you understand the power of storytelling, you will need to find stories to tell in your next presentation. But where do good stories come from? I find stories almost everywhere. As you seek out stories, listen to friends, colleagues and family members. You may even want to formally interview good storytellers or people with interesting histories.

To develop human-interest stories, you can try asking questions such as the following:

1. Where did you grow up?

2. How did your parents raise you?

3. What did your dad or mom teach you about work?

4. What was your first job?

5. What is the most important thing about managing people?

Another method for finding stories that might relate directly to your audience is to put room for their stories in your pre-speech questionnaire or call people who will be attending your speech and ask them for their stories— what is the funniest thing, scariest thing, most unusual thing that has happened to them in their work. Listen to your boss, your coworkers, and your customers. You can also ask customers how your product has affected their business or fellow team members how that new software works for them.

One time I had to give a speech to the Vertical Transportation Association (that’ s elevator inspectors and engineers), and I was searching for a story that would help connect me to my audience. I was the first non-industry speaker to speak to that association, and I wanted to make a good impression. I spent weeks reading elevator-industry literature, learning the vernacular and making up funny stories about floor-to-floor time. But to my surprise, my best speech story came from a casual conversation at the preconvention cocktail party. Finding a good story is like fishing. You’ ve got to get out on the water.

Family members are great sources for stories. When I was preparing a speech for Chick-Fil-A, I asked my teenage niece about her job at Subway. She told me some funny stories about indecisive customers, and I used her stories in my speech. The front line people in the audience said later, “You got our customers down pat.”

When you do find a great story, take good notes and don’ t forget the details. An important part of my story about my parents is that on the Saturday my dad proposed, he went out and bought a red convertible and an engagement ring. He picked up my mother with the top down on the convertible drove her out under a full Miami moon to propose. The details of the red convertible, the top down and the full Miami Moon help the audience members visualize the scene. Page 5

Years ago, I was writing an article about how to gather a family history. I asked my mother some of the questions I suggested above. One of those questions was “How did you meet Daddy?” My mother told me about their love-at-first sight meeting. That has been my signature story since 1982.


1. The Lifeline. A lifeline is a drawing of all the big and little events of a life. Creativity gurus like Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artists Way, and autobiographers swear by lifelining as a tool to draw stories from real life. I teach it in my “ There’ s a Book Inside Me and I’ ve Got to Get it Out” workshop for participants who are not only writing autobiographies but for those who are writing fiction so they can create a history for their characters.

To create a lifeline:

A. Turn a blank sheet of white paper sideways. Draw a line across the center from end to end so it divides the top and bottom half of the paper evenly.

B. Go to the far left end of the line and decide where you would like to begin your time line stories. You can start at birth or at first grade or at your first job. Then decide where to end it.

C. Draw little lines out from the life line on the top and bottom. On each of these lines, write a keyword or phrase or sentence that describes an incident in your life. (For instance: “ born,” “moved to Ohio,” got a puppy” ). You may wish to put positive events on the bottom line and negative on the top or just hop from side to side.

D. When you are done with the time line, you can expand on particular incidents and begin making them into stories. For example, on my time line, I have the sentence: “ Bad little boy burned down our play shed.” This is a story I tell that includes a description of how all the kids in the apartment complex didn’ t like to play with this one boy because he was mean and how out of revenge he set our play shed on fire. My friends and I watched the flames lick up the sides of the building as we leaned out the windows looking down. Fire engines came charging up with sirens blaring. The next day I remember going to the play shed and crying over the burned black wood and thinking my instincts about the boy were right. It was also the first test of my ability to resist the urge to vengeance.

2. River Writing. Writing without editing helps you write from your right hemisphere.

A. You’ ll need a blank white sheet of paper, turned horizontally, and a blue pen. Set a timer for ten minutes or more. Imagine your mind is a large blue lake and out of that lake runs a river with a strong current. This river flows down your shoulders, over your arm and out of the pen in your hand and flows onto the paper.

B. Keep writing, don’ t stop and don’ t edit. Go wherever your river of thoughts takes you. Write freely and uncritically, letting the words flow faster than you think. Don’ t stop until the time is up. Page 6

C. Possible topics for river writing include

    1. Your first job

    2. An interaction with your boss

    3. An interaction with a customer

    4. A customer service interaction where you were the customer

    5. A wonderful moment in your work. Be descriptive and include sensory details.

3. Firsts. Making a list of “ firsts” can be a great trigger for stories. You may take firsts from your life or from someone you are interviewing. These firsts might be: first house, first kiss, first date, first car, first job, first life challenge. Make up your own list.

In college I interviewed my father about World War II for my history class. I asked about “first” hearing about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He talked about listening to the radio with his buddy, and how, although they were only sixteen, they both went down and enlisted in the Air Force the next day.

These are just a few of the many exercises available for uncovering and discovering terrific stories. They should help you get started.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Patti Wood MA is a Professional Speaker and a Communication and Body Language expert based in Atlanta, GA. Patti's clients include Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and associations, and she has written seven books. Patti is currently finishing her newest book People Savvy. To learn more go to the People Savvy Web site