The value of storytelling in professional and executive communications is no secret. Inserting stories into your presentations humanizes you, creates magnetic engagement, and, ideally, memorably illustrates your point. An abundance of conferences, books, and articles are devoted to storytelling–so much so that if you don’t have a story in your speech, you might want to reconsider speaking.
But telling a good story and sharing a story strategically are two different things. The first is designed to entertain–serving a minor objective at best, while the second is designed to illustrate your point–fulfilling a fundamental objective. What you want is an audience inspired to support you or take action. What you don’t need is an audience merely thinking you’re a great public speaker (unless your only objective is to get more public speaking gigs.)
If you include a story in your next presentation, consider five strategic ways to make that story matter.
1. Pick stories that prove, illustrate, or at least introduce your point.
In the context of a presentation, a story doesn’t justify its own existence. Used most advantageously, the story is a powerful vehicle through which a meaningful point travels. Your goal is to make the story relevant, not just riveting.
Any true story can help propel a point–like a moment from your childhood, an eye-opening incident from your professional history, or an event you witnessed at a business location–but the key is connecting the interesting moment to an imperative message.
For example, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has been known to talk about an accident that left his father unable to work when Howard was a child and how that drives his interest in caring for Starbucks employees. Likewise, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh tells stories about his early days at the company, during which he recognized the value of building a corporate culture.
Both of these stories are deliberately designed to convey an important message or make a positive impression–not just to delight an audience or make the speaker more relatable.
2. Use language that explicitly connects your story to your point.
The work of making your story relevant doesn’t happen during the telling of the story; it happens after you tell the story, with critical connector lines like these:
“This story illustrates why we must…”
“This case study exemplifies the importance of…”
“This event proves what’s possible if we…”
“This moment was pivotal in developing my appreciation for…”
These phrases put the story’s point in virtual neon for the audience. Without these connectors, the story lacks a clear purpose.
At the end of the day–or a presentation–an audience that remembers your story but not your point is left with something amusing but not valuable. But an audience that remembers your point–even if they forget the story–is gifted with inspiring insight.
The best TED Talks are filled with stories–they virtually require it–but if you watch carefully, you’ll spot these connector lines (“here’s why I told you that story”) expressed in various ways.
3. Keep the audience hooked with scene-setting, volume, and pausing.
Of all the effective storytelling tips, these three are the most practical for presenters:
First, set the scene. Share the date and time of the day, the place (like a city or restaurant), and any necessary conditions, like weather or holiday seasons. These details help the audience visualize the story, which keeps them hooked.
Second, increase your volume. This helps the audience hang onto your words without straining to hear or understand, which can hinder their reception of the story and, consequently, your point.
Finally, embrace pausing. Pauses add suspense to the story but, more importantly, give your mind time to generate the right words and ideas to keep the story tight and precise.
4. Make the stories quick and concise to keep yourself in point-making mode, not storytelling mode.
The longer and more complicated a story is, the more likely it will bore or at least distract your audience, so keep it within one minute by omitting details that may be intriguing but pull attention away from your point instead of toward it. Speaking longer than one minute means you are performing, not presenting. As I sometimes say to my clients, “This isn’t This American Life. Get in and get out of your story.”
5. Share not just what happened but what you learned from it.
Humans connect with humans more effectively through relatable human feelings than recognizable events, so try to share a key learning, insight, or realization that sprung from the occasion. Sometimes that learning is your key point, and sometimes it leads to your key point, but unearthing and presenting it will make your story more personal and more valuable to the audience.