"Thank you for the amazing team-building seminar. Your approach allowed us to be playful, yet work together as a team on common goals and challenges. It was amazing to watch the positive change that came over individuals throughout the day and how empowered everyone felt by the end. The comprehensive program and expert guidance provided by KLR will make our company better equipped to weather the difficult economic storm facing us."

Mistie Cohen, President
Eye Spy Critiquing & Consulting

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Secrets of Great Presentations: Storytelling, Part III

(posted: February 26th, 2016)

How to Tell 'Em? 10 Tips For Stories That Engage & Entertain Audiences

Great presentation and communication skills are the secret to holding people’s attention, making a persuasive point, being remembered and appearing competent and confident.

You may be giving a talk to an auditorium filled with people, or you could just as easily be asking your boss to give you a raise, hoping that a roomful of investors will back your new company or product, or convincing your friends to watch a specific movie. In all cases, your success comes down to how effectively you share your ideas in public.

With some knowledge and some hard work, you can develop the skills to inspire people, get them interested, get them on your side and fire them up to take action.

In Secrets of Great Presentations we'll build your speaking skills step by step. In this installment of the series I'll talk about how to tell your stories for the best emotional impact and audience engagement.

"It was a dark and stormy night..."

"Once upon a time, in a land now forgotten..."

"That year was to be a year like no other..."

"In a galaxy far, far away..."

We have talked about why stories are essential to a great presentation, illustrating your points and making them more memorable. Then we looked at where you can find your stories.

But how do you use your stories well, especially if you are not a natural storyteller? How do you tell stories in a presentation in such a way that they fit, and add interest, yet they don't seem silly, or inappropriate in a business setting?

It's a valid concern – we've all been victims of the person whose story goes on and on and on and...on, until we're desperate to get away! So here are some tips to help you tell stories that actually work and add value for your audience.

10 Tips For Choosing and Using the Right Story

First, like with your presentation itself, decide what is the purpose of your story:

  • Entertainment?
  • Motivation?
  • Education?
  • Building rapport?
  • Engaging specific emotions?

Once you know this, you can choose a story that fits your purpose, and determine where and how to tell it. You don't want to be telling stories just because you are supposed to. They need to support your message.

1. Choosing the right story.
It should be suitable for the occasion, the audience, the impression you want to make, and it should relate back to your point. Assume the story will be remembered, so choose wisely. A personal connection to you, as the storyteller, or to your audience, gives your story a boost right away, before you've done anything else. "Remember when all of us..." "If you've worked at XYZCorp for very long, you've had this experience..."

2. What NOT to tell.
Don't choose anything that sounds like gossip, complaining, or bragging. Avoid embarrassing anyone the audience might know, except perhaps yourself. But at the same time, be careful not to tell a story that could undermine your credibility. It's a thin line between self-effacing humor and looking like you don't know what you're doing.

3. Open with a hook.
Don't let your audience get away. Perhaps you start with why you are telling the story. Or you might foreshadow the lesson that will be learned. Start with some of the action, and then come back to the beginning. Quickly set the stage. Plan this opening carefully so that you can begin the story smoothly without fumbling for dates or names. The goal is to move quickly into the situation.

4. Set up the problem.
Luggage is lost. You missed an important meeting. The customer was upset. The wolf's at the door. Generally, your hero should face an insurmountable obstacle. Without a problem you don't really have a story. Outline the problem and then let that problem sink in a moment. Give it a second to breathe. Give the audience a chance to think, "What's our hero gonna do now?"

5. Add some details.
A handful of carefully chosen details help bring your story to life. One way to do this is to use names. My dog, Rex. Bob and Mira, my colleagues and partners in crime.... It makes the story more believable, and also easier to follow. In some cases you won't want to use real names, but you can substitute a made-up name for clarity. Some other possible details include colors or other descriptive words: The customer's red face, the excited dog's wagging tail, the little girl's sparkly pink shoes. Not every element of the story needs this kind of detail. Include just enough to paint a verbal picture for the audience.

6. Act it out.
Use dialog and gestures. You can use a character voice - just a simple change in pitch or tone, like getting louder or softer depending on the emotion of your character, and add the appropriate body language. For example, in your story "She whipped around, glared at me with her hands on her hips and said, in a voice that sent chills down my spine, 'Don't you ever try that again, young lady!' As you say what "she" said, put your hands on your hips, glare, and speak in an imposing voice to bring more life to the character.

7. Build the action...use repetition.
Goldilocks didn't try the porridge once, she didn't try it twice, she tried it three times. There is a real cadence when you try three times, or take three actions that don't work before you hit on the winner. Don't drag it out, but do show enough of the struggle to build your case.

8. Build to the climax.
Finally, the porridge was just right. At last, I understood what my coach had been trying to tell me all those times I failed. It took six years, but we finally won the business. You might slow down your rate of speech a little here. Pause. Savor the moment. Smile if it is a happy ending, or allow sadness if necessary. Let it be known that the end is near.

9. Provide the lesson, the moral or closure.
If there is any tidying up to do, here is where you do it. Think of your favorite movies: The hero wins the day, kills the villain, saves the girl or changes his ways, but we still have to wrap up a few things, like does the hero's sidekick survive, and what about the treasure? But then: They lived happily ever after. Or, So that is why every time I face a big challenge, I think of Coach Jones.

10. Rehearse in front of a live audience.
Do what entertainers do, and test your material on a small group of friends, or family, or perhaps an acquaintance at your favorite coffee shop or bar. Do some blind testing, telling your story and looking for their reactions while you practice your delivery.

  • What seems to grab them?
  • When do they lean forward?
  • What do they want to hear more about?
  • Where in the story do they say, "Mm Hmm," but then look at their phone?

Also do some practice where you ask for feedback. Find out what your stories meant to your test subjects. Is the story good? Did you tell it well? Was there any suspense? Did it make the point you wanted it to make?

Take both types of feedback and make changes, and test some more. When you are getting raves, then your story is ready for prime time.

Can you tell stories? I think you can! Try these strategies the next time you are presenting to an audience of any size, and see if they don't enhance your storytelling skills.

Challenge Yourself
  • What are your favorite details to add to your stories?
  • How do you make your stories memorable?
  • How do you practice and hone your stories before you use them in a presentation?

Read the Secrets of Great Presentations Series

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