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May 2024
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Bring Your Speech to Life With a Story

A well-crafted narrative can help you connect with your audience.

By Caren S. Neile, Ph.D.

Let me tell you a story.

I wrote for TV news and magazines for many years. I also loved novels and wanted to learn how to write a good one. So I returned to school, where I discovered dozens of effective techniques for improving my writing.

By the time I graduated, many of my sentences were positively shimmering.

But I still couldn’t publish a novel, much less come up with an interesting plot. Most of my fellow students couldn’t, either. Several of us had had agents who gave us up when our books didn’t sell. I knew I was not the only one who felt like a failure.

Around that time, I attended an adult storytelling performance. I was blown away. Listening in awe, I realized how exciting it would be to get the instant feedback of telling my stories to an audience. So, I joined Toastmasters.

I learned what a story is, and how to tell one. I also joined several storytelling organizations, received storytelling coaching, and read a lot on the subject. And I began, slowly, to perform stories, first on the club level, and then eventually in public.

In the course of all of this, I noticed that when I listened to speeches, my mind wandered much less often when the information they contained was presented in the form of a story. That, I discovered, is because certain areas of our brains respond to the descriptions and emotions in stories so deeply that we fall into what’s known as a “storytelling trance.” For all intents and purposes, we are living the stories in our brains, taking a journey along with the storyteller, experiencing what the storyteller describes, and feeling what they, or the characters in the story, feel.

That, in turn, not only forges a connection between storyteller and listener, but also helps the listener retain what is said. What’s more, storytelling helps us find meaning in our lives, because stories remind us that actions have consequences. That what we and others do matters.

And I thought: Wow! No wonder politicians tell stories on a regular basis, and U.S. presidents have been referred to as “storytellers-in-chief.” Stories are incredibly persuasive. So persuasive, in fact, that the ancient Greek philosopher Plato—a storyteller himself—banned them from his vision of a perfect republic. He, too, knew the power of a good story.

The more I pursued my craft, the more I learned.

What is storytelling?

A story is a causal sequence of events—that is, one event leads logically into another—that have occurred to a real or fictional character or characters at a specific time and place. After introducing the main characters in their habitat, the storyteller presents some sort of problem for them, or question, or itch to be scratched.

Generally, the more difficult the problem, the more empathy we have for the characters, and the more invested we are in the story. The same goes for how hard the characters must work to resolve this tension; this is what evokes emotion in listeners and makes the story interesting. The problem is resolved at the end of the story in a relatively unexpected way. Otherwise, why tell the story?

To be human is to be a storyteller.

And finally, the main characters, as well as the listeners, are transformed in some way as a result of the experience.

To be human is to be a storyteller. In fact, it’s said that the ability to tell and understand a story, to see our lives both as a series of stories and as an overarching narrative, is one of the characteristics that makes us human. Unfortunately, in Western culture, we are often taught that stories are childish things, and that as we mature, we need to deal in hard, concrete facts. So we lose what many of us once had instinctively: the ability and the confidence to tell effective stories. The good news is that there are ways to learn how to tell stories again.

How do you create engaging stories?

The easiest way to learn to create stories is to make a habit of narrative thinking. Say someone asked, “How was your evening?” You could simply say, “I had a flat tire, and the towing service came and fixed it.” And that would be that. Or, you could tell a story.

“My worst fear,” you might say, “has always been having a flat in the middle of nowhere. So I have done everything I can to avoid it. I get my tires checked regularly. I learned how to put on the spare. I even have a spray that plugs holes. Then last night, I drove over some debris on a dark, lonely road. Soon I realized my front passenger tire was thumping. Holding my breath, I pulled over and got out my spray can. But this was a tear, not a hole, so it didn’t work. With my heart thumping as loudly as the flat, I opened the trunk to get the spare. But it wasn’t there. I was shaking. Tears welled up in my eyes. Then, by chance, I noticed a towing service sticker on my windshield. I reached for my phone. Could I get a signal? Would they come quickly? Yes, and yes. I was back in business 15 minutes later. And all the way home, I thought: I did it. I survived my worst fear.

Did you notice how the context (“my worst fear”) helped you begin to care about, identify with, or perhaps admire the character, who was responsible enough to try to prevent being stranded? Did you notice how we saw what she saw, heard what she heard, and maybe even began to feel what she felt? Do you see how the problem kept compounding, how it was solved in a way the character hadn’t expected, and how she gained confidence when she solved it?

Older man using gestures to tell story to other man

How do you tell an engaging story?

Creating a story is not the same as performing a story, of course. Toastmasters can help a lot with that. In the Level 3 Pathways elective project “Connect with Storytelling,” we see how the same skills that you use in other kinds of public speaking, especially those related to clarity, vocal variety, eye contact, gestures, and audience awareness, are essential in storytelling.

Also important: Describe the story as it plays out in your mind rather than memorizing the words. And as with public speaking in general, the three most important things to remember are practice, practice, and practice.

Certain areas of our brains respond to the descriptions and emotions in stories so deeply that we fall into what’s known as a “storytelling trance.”

I’m grateful that I discovered the power of storytelling, and for how it’s informed my life and what I have learned and shared because of it.

Now, everywhere I look, I see a story. It has made my life feel more meaningful, and it has made for some very successful speeches.

Editor’s Note: Want to learn even more storytelling tips? Sign up for the Connect and Inspire Through Storytelling webinar on April 25! Rotary International and Toastmasters International invite you to this storytelling hour.


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