Once you have the structure of your presentation in place, you should have a sound logical argument. But to really capture audiences’ attention and persuade them to take action, you need to engage their emotions – which is where storytelling comes in….
Whenever we hear the words “Once upon a time” or “Now I’m going to tell you a story” you are likely to enter the pleasant ‘storytelling trance’ you remember as a child, when you were entertained and entranced by magical stories. This trance quietens down the conscious mind, with its critical thinking and potential objections to a presenter’s message. Finally, this relaxed state of mind is highly conducive to learning.
Simply telling the audience you’re going to tell them a story, you can subtly evoke this powerful learning state in your audience.
The famous hypnotist Milton Erickson said he told so many stories because they are an excellent way to tap into people’s personal experience, even if you’ve only just met them. E.g. if I talk about my sister, at the back of your mind you start thinking about your sister or brother; if I talk about my holiday, and you think about your holiday; or if I talk about my experience of facing a daunting public speaking challenge, you start to associate this with your own hopes and fears about public speaking.
By telling a story about a common experience, you are prompting your audience to start making connections between your story on their own experience. This is all the more powerful because they are doing it below the level of full conscious awareness.
Stories are inherently dramatic — they describe an important challenge or problem that carries an emotional charge. And the strongest associations for the audience will be with emotionally charged memories.
By telling an emotionally charged story you make the audience feel as well as think, resulting in a powerful and memorable presentation. Because of this, it is very important that if you introduce an unpleasant emotion (e.g. fear, anger, disgust), then your story should provide a satisfactory resolution in the form of a happy ending.
Don’t leave the audience remembering how terrifying it was to be imprisoned in the Giant’s castle — leave them with the feeling of relief and happiness at scampering off hand-in-hand with the beautiful princess!
Stories don’t just describe a problem or challenge — they show the hero/heroine confronting and solving the problem. If you’re giving a presentation that matters, you will be addressing some problem faced by the audience. So by telling a story with a happy ending, you can present them with a blueprint for solving their own problem. E.g. by talking about overcoming my own fear of public speaking, my aim is to show you that your experience is perfectly normal, and that you too can learn to love presenting.
Ask yourself “What of problem is my presentation designed to solve?”. Then ask yourself “Who has solved this kind of problem before?” — the answer to that question can provide you with a story that is tailor-made for your audience.
Stories are about change. The heroine is not the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning. Change often appears threatening, but a well-told story sweetens the pill by providing an entertaining example of a process of change that was difficult along the way, but well worth it in the end.
By telling a story that takes the audience on a journey of transformation, you are taking them through a ‘mental dress rehearsal’ for the kind of change you want them to make in real life. By the time you reach the end of the story, you may have changed their minds without them realising it!
You Are Already a Good Storyteller
Photo by Invisible Hour
Storytelling is not rocket science. You probably do it all the time without noticing it.
Remember the last time you were down the pub with your mates or at a dinner party, when somebody started telling a story that reminded you of something that had happened to you recently — you couldn’t wake for the other story to finish, so that you could start telling yours, right? And when you told it, you were so full of how funny/scary/shocking/exciting it was, the words came tripping off your tongue. And when your friends laughed/winced/ sucked in their breath in the right places, you knew the story had hit home.
If you can do it with your friends, you can do it with an audience. Start to notice what it’s like when you get that itch to tell a story — that’s the feeling you want to recapture before you get up on stage.
A time you changed your mind
Tell a friend the story about a time you change your mind about something.
What did you think beforehand?
What made you change your mind?
What have you done differently ever since?
When you’re telling the story, notice how it makes you feel — and notice your friend’s emotional response.
Afterwards, ask your friends what were the best bits of the story. Make sure you include them when you tell the story to an audience!