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The Power of Stories

By Patti A. Wood, M.A.

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 thanthe 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.

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 if anyone had a sweetie whom he instantly knew was “the one.” The audience got quieter and began to listen as I told them the following story:

“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.”

As I told the story, I used body language, voice inflections and gestures in my story. Through the power of storytelling, I managed to gain the attention of what seemed an impossibly distracted audience. That same 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.

Stories in speeches serve many functions. They can create a more attentive and interested audience. Stories also provide a safe way for you to talk about controversial or sensitive topics. When you tell a story, it gives you a unique opportunity to change minds and behavior, makes your message easier to understand and remember, and helps provide a personal connection with your audience. Most important, storytelling can 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.

…and then I began my story….