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Where’s the Story?

By Patti A. Wood, M.A.

You’ve probably noticed that the most memorable speeches contain a story or several stories that somehow touched you, enlightened you or simply helped you to relate to the speaker. If you’re a speaker or if you are planning on giving a speech, you will want toincorporate this proven strategy into your speech.

Where do good stories come from? Stories can be found almost anywhere. Listen to friends, colleagues and family members to hear their stories. 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, 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 pre-convention 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.”

Making a lists of “firsts” can also 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 16, they both went down and enlisted in the Air Force the next day.

When you do find a great story, take good notes and don’t forget the details. 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. I asked for the details that included, a red convertible, a full Miami moon and an engagement ring. That has been my signature story since 1982.