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Three sought-after speakers explain why they use stories to enhance their speeches

Three of our top speakers offer their take on why stories should be an integral part of a good speech.
Three sought-after speakers explain why they use stories to enhance their speeches

Table of Contents

Stories have been a powerful tool throughout history for entertaining, teaching and engaging listeners. They can form a hook on which speakers can hang lessons, and no matter what the level of the speaker, stories will always work in a powerful way. For Tell a Story Day, we asked some of our speakers how important stories were to their speeches.

Thimon de Jong speaker

Recognised as a strategic foresight expert who examines how human behaviour and culture influence business, Thimon de Jong is able to use socioeconomic and cultural change to meet the needs of different industries. His speeches are described by clients as ‘memorable intellectual entertainment’, due to his ability to grab the audience’s attention with a combination of research, visuals, practical business tools and stories.

Right off the hat, story-telling is ab-so-lu-te-ly essential for a great presentation. I devote around 50% of my time on the story-telling part of a keynote (and 50% to the actual content). It’s that important. And the storytelling preparation is very satisfying as well, I can spend hours thinking about how I will say something, what body language to use and where it would fit best in my presentation etc.. And this is not a one size fits all process, I customise my storytelling based on the audience, country, event, time of day, small/big room, other speakers, the time I’ve got etc. As I got more experienced, I’ve become ‘audience conscious’ and now can sense what the audience needs story-telling wise. Do I need to speed up, slow down, do they need an exercise or is it time for a joke? I can’t really rationalise this, it is very much a feeling. Where I am now, in many presentations I have a bag of storytelling ‘tricks’ which I can use real-time, based on what I get back from the audience. It’s a bit like a jazz piece, you have your standard theme, with a beginning, middle and end, but throughout you can improvise. To give three storytelling pro tips for presentations:

1. Identify with the audience’s real-time emotions

For example, I present an insight that is hard to believe at first glance. Then I will say from the stage: “I know some people find this hard to believe.” I will look around the audience and mimic a puzzled facial expression or defensive body language. This will lead to a response where the audience feels that I understand them. Then I can identify more “I felt completely the same when I read this study, but then… etc” And then after some more explanation go back to that first emotion and see if the audience has accepted the insight.

2. It has to be fun

A client once described my style as intellectual entertainment. I agree. Not because I have the secret wish to become a stand-up comedian, but because messages stick better if strong emotions are involved and laughter is arguably the best one for a presentation. I always look for fun/edgy facts in research. Abroad, I make fun of my home country or myself – not the country I am in or my client. And if the insight is totally boring, but relevant, I’ll find a storytelling solution to make it entertaining. “And now for the most boring slide of the year, brace yourself, here we go!”

3. Visuals are part of the story-telling

I know exactly when I am going to advance a slide. Visuals should not distract or take the energy away from me, the presenter, but enhance the energy and add to the story-telling. I recommend using as little text as possible and never show something onscreen that you are going to talk about while you are still on a previous topic. There are great places online where you can find awesome high-res rights free visuals, so there is no excuse! Eg.

“messages stick better if strong emotions are involved…”

Post Three sought-after speakers explain why they use stories to enhance their speeches

A renowned leadership speaker, Emmanuel Gobillot has the knowledge and creativity to inspire others, and the ability to see where business issues lie. His abilities as a speaker and his ground-breaking but practical methods have seen him become one of Europe’s most sought-after leadership gurus. As a speaker, he is fully engaging with his humorous, educational style full of stories and interactivity.

They say: “the facts speak for themselves”. Well, whoever they are, they are wrong. Facts do not speak. Facts are as mute as we are deaf to them. Stories on the other hand sing. They scream. They shout in our ears. And most importantly for those of us in the business of changing people, stories reverberate in our heads. They are remembered long after facts are forgotten.

I have studied leaders for twenty years. I have written four books and read hundreds on the topic. I have interviewed hundreds of people and spoken to thousands. I have looked at thousands of data points and gathered tens of thousands of facts. Yet my most often quoted contributions to the topic are two stories. One concerns an argument with my daughter over pocket money and the other is about how pandas can help us predict successful change.

Stories matter. They are not ephemeral fiction. Stories are the vehicle through which we make sense of the world together. Stories are integral to the intricate language of humanity. If your job is to connect you must speak that language. If you want to influence, you must become fluent in storytelling.

Post Three sought-after speakers explain why they use stories to enhance their speeches

An expert on execution, leadership, sales, motivation, change and entrepreneurial success, Kevin Kelly is a highly acclaimed speaker. As a speaker, Kevin’s talks consistently deliver an interactive conversation that informs, inspires and empowers attendees with a toolbox of invaluable takeaways. Staying true to his Irish roots, Kevin is also a master storyteller which ensures his audiences stay engaged at all times.

So what have stories the power to do?

1. Hit the spot: According to Stanford marketing professor Jennifer Aaker our brains are wired to understand and retain stories.”

2. Connect both teller and listener: Uri Hasson Assistant professor of psychology from Princeton found that personal stories actually synch the brain of the storyteller and listener.

3. Bring people on a journey  People can see themselves in a good story.

4. Deliver a Positive drug rush!  According to Paul Zachs When someone tells you a compelling story it releases chemicals that helps makes you pay attention, feel empathy and feel good.

5. Increase your ROI – In an experiment devised by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn called Significant Objects they demonstrated the effect of a story/narrative on any given object’s subjective value. The objects, purchased for $1.25 a piece on average, sold for nearly $8,000.00 in total.

6. Get your message shared: In the earlier part of this century Storytellers or Seanchai as they were called in Ireland used to weave their magic on audiences around the fireplaces –stories that were subsequently shared throughout the community.

And now if you still don’t believe in the importance of crafting a story think TED! Think back to your favourite TED Talk. The best TED speakers all start with a story. You might notice what they don’t start with is a long introduction about how happy they are to be there, how grateful they are to the organisers and what a wonderful city they are in!

Finally, the good news is that everyone has access to an anthology of stories – FAILURES/VICTORIES, FIRSTS/LASTS, BEST ADVICE/WORST ADVICE, TRAVEL… The story doesn’t need to be worthy of an Oscar nomination – all that needs to happen is that the person can identify with the story. We all have the stories – the question is #whatsyourstory?

Contributed by

Patrick Nelson
Patrick Nelson

Chief Marketing Officer, Speakers Associates