How passionate storytelling makes a message unforgettable.
BY KELLY SWANSON
I was speaking to a group of hotel managers in a program on how
to motivate their employees to provide better customer service.
In the opening, I pointed out that according to a 2016 Gallup
poll, only 34.1 percent of American workers are engaged in the
And then I told them a story. It was about a woman I had heard
singing as she worked in a hospital, and how I had heard her voice
all the way from the parking lot. "Some sweet morning, when this
day is over, I'll fly away."
They were loud, staccato, jubilant notes of a life well
lived. When the automatic glass doors to the building opened,
I could see her standing there holding her mop as if it were a
beloved dance partner, as if her faded cotton dress were made of
the finest silk. I watched her all throughout the day as she touched
the lives of many. In the cold antiseptic corners of that hospital
I saw pain find healing, watched sorrow meet comfort, and saw
hopelessness find hope all wrapped up in a faded cotton dress
and comfortable shoes. That day, a woman full of blessings who
smelled of bleach showed me what service looks like—and it didn't
come in a list, but in an attitude.
The program continued on, and at the end I asked my audi
ence who among them could remember what I had mentioned
earlier about the poll and the percentage of employees it indicated
were engaged in the workplace. Two hands went up. Then I asked
if anyone could remember the song the woman in my story was
singing. Almost every hand went up. Nobody could remember
the fact, but everyone remembered the story. That showed me
how facts aren't tied to emotions—but story is. It is the greatest
tool we have to connect and engage.
Are all stories equal? No. I've watched speakers tell stories that
captivated the entire room, and I watched them tell stories that
put everybody to sleep. Just having a story is not good enough.
Apply the following tips to your stories and watch what happens.
Understand how and why story works
Once you understand the psychology behind stories and their
impact, it gets easier to write the ones that are most effective
for you. It starts with an understanding that listeners don't take
action without first having a visual. Therefore, their thoughts are
not stored as words, but as images.
For your data to have a lasting impact, it must be wrapped in
an image for the listener to truly connect with, store and access
later. The story does all the work. The point drives it home. Story
Stop looking for a good story
So many speakers ask, "Is this a good story?" That's the wrong
question. Don't go looking for a "good" story. Look for one that
your audience will connect with. An experience they can relate to.
Then work on making it a good story
Meridith Elliott Powell is a professional business speaker
who uses stories as part of her presentations. "Stories are more
powerful when you are not always the hero in the story," she says.
"Your audiences learn so much more when they can relate to you.
So when you are vulnerable in the story—when you are the one
learning rather than teaching the lesson—it has far more impact."
Look for stories that make a connection and make them good.
Craft a good script and a good delivery
Every story has two major components—a stellar script and an
awesome delivery. You can't have one without the other. Every
word makes a difference with its ability to add power or take it
away, Every gesture, pause, voice inflection and expression has
that same power. Use it.
Don't wing it.
Don't step outside of your story and
simply talk about it. Stand inside of it
and live it again.
When listeners connect with your story, they aren't connecting
with the facts from your life. They are connecting to how you felt
along the way. They may not share your experience of moving
to a new country, and therefore can't relate to it. But if you say
you were sad to leave your family, that you felt alone, that you
felt invisible, that you weren't sure what to do, people can relate
to those emotions. The emotions are your experience, and the
bridge that helps listeners step into your story and connect with
your journey. Don't just tell what happened, speak about how it
made you feel.
Show; don't tell
A story is as powerful as its details. These details paint the
scene and the characters. The details you share (the character
descriptions, accents, sounds and smells) allow the listener
to step into your story instead of just hearing about it. If the
listener can't see the scene, they can't connect with it. They
want specifics, not generalizations. Don't speak about how
hard it was for you in the 80s. Talk about a specific moment
in time when something happened.
Less is more
Telling a story in five to seven minutes is a challenging task
and worth the labor, because it forces you to choose the words
that count. Like songs, our stories should be tight—every word
chosen should serve a purpose—every word should audition its
way in. Treat every word like it's a note in your song.
Act it out
The most common mistake speakers make is that they tell the
story like they are reading a grocery list. Don't step outside of
your story and simply talk about it. Stand inside of it and live
it again. Act it out whenever you can. Don't plan gestures to
match your story, just be expressive when you tell it. We do
this naturally when we tell stories to our friends and family. It's
when we get onstage that we become stiff and unnatural. Tell
a story in the same comfortable manner you would have if you
were sitting at the kitchen table (without the ums and uhs).
Relive the story as you tell it. D
KELLY SWANSON is an award-winning storyteller, comedian,
motivational speaker and author. She teaches the art of
connection and engagement through the power of story. Visit
Master the art of connection and engagement through the power of story
You. Your story. Make an impact.