A great story is essential to a successful presentation. Imagine how I once felt, sitting in an audience of 18,000 people, listening to a former First Lady recounting a great story she had read in Chicken Soup for the Soul – my own story which made the point, “What you do speaks louder than what you say.” (Yes, I know Ralph Waldo Emerson said it first.) Did she mention it was my story? No.
But even if she had mentioned my name, I think she missed a huge opportunity with her speech. At the time, I imagined her sitting in bed at the White House, going through stacks of books with a highlighter pen looking for things to talk about. Since then, after speaking at the Ragan Speechwriter’s Conference, I’ve realized that more likely a speechwriter did the research and wrote her words.
My point? I’m not upset she didn’t credit me. Just disappointed that someone with a First Lady’s incredible life experiences did not share them 100% of the time during her talk. I am certain she could have shared a much more interesting personal story instead of delivering a mini book report on my Chicken Soup piece. That’s how audiences will feel if you repeat others’ stories or use examples they’ve already read or heard many times before.
I urge you to create original, vivid stories from your own life experiences. Though we may not all be fortunate enough to experience the world through the windows of the White House, each of us has unique and compelling stories to share. My friend, professional speaker and storytelling expert Craig Harrison shares this piece to help you create original stories for your presentations.
You’ve Got Stories!
Prospecting Your Past to Uncover Your Own Stories
by Craig Harrison
We’re surrounded by stories. Everywhere we look and listen people are telling stories. On a recent trip, I heard stories everywhere: on the shuttle to the airport, going through the security lines, at the gate, on the airplane, and waiting for at baggage claim. Everyone was telling stories… to each other, to flight attendants – no doubt the flight attendants were telling each other stories about us!
If you attend Toastmasters meetings and events, sooner or later you will hear some version of “the Lighthouse Story” or “the Starfish Story” or a similar apocryphal story. These are popular stories, delightful stories… but not original stories.
Many speakers believe that they don’t have great stories since they haven’t beaten cancer, founded a Fortune 500 company, or won a Nobel Prize – but you don’t have to have survived a bullet to the head, turned around a failing airline, or even been bestowed with the coveted Cavett award from the National Speakers Association to have stories to tell. Truth be told, you’ve got stories; you just need to uncover them!
The Best Stories: Unique Yet Universal
What makes a speaker’s story compelling? Authenticity reigns. Audiences sense when a story is fictitious or appropriated from other sources. Tell a personal story that originated with you.
In order for your audience to embrace your story, you should choose one with universal appeal. Ask yourself, is there a universal theme within my story that audience members can relate to? For example, we can all relate to stories with these familiar themes:
- The coming of age
- Acquiring of wisdom
- The hero’s journey
- Finding prince charming
- Haste making waste
- Practice making perfect
What other universal truths can you find within your own stories? Always first consider whether a story contains a universal truth for your audience.
History, Her Story, Our Story
Everyone has stories. Your family has them – about how you were conceived, born, or bred and about how your ancestors arrived at this country. Your religion has them, as do your religious leaders! Your organization has them – about the founders, the incorporating of the business and its development. Your nation has them – about its founders, wars, famines, transformations and growth. Cultures have them. They may take the form of myths and legends. And you yourself have stories – of growing up, of life’s milestones and your travels. It’s time to uncover your own stories.
How to Uncover Your Story Gems
People constantly ask me, “How do I find my own stories?” This is can be challenging to do in isolation, but it becomes easier if you enlist a friend, colleague or family member. Have them ask you questions and capture what emerges through notes or recording. Many of the questions I suggest here pertain to the first time you did something. While my list is by no means exhaustive, it is guaranteed to generate stories.
Tell me about…
- Your first day at school
- First overnight at camp
- First pet
- Your first girlfriend / boyfriend
- First kiss
- First breakup
- First beer
- Your first trip overseas
- Your first job
- First time you saw your partner
- Meeting your (first) wife / husband
- Your first million (made or lost!)
- First child or grandchild
Other questions to draw out stories:
- What was your family like?
- Where did you grow up and what made it distinctive?
- Describe your favorites from childhood? Smell? Food? Hangout? Favorite Relative?
- Ever do anything extraordinary?
- Ever witness an extraordinary event?
- Ever have a brush with fame? Or an encounter with a famous person?
By using this process I’ve generated stories about the Great Dane on the corner that thwarted my paper route, the time in Las Vegas I made the comedian Sinbad laugh, a mishap at a Chinese banquet hall in Hong Kong (my Chinese wedding banquet), how I sold lemonade to the National Guard during the riots in Berkeley in the 60’s and more. Each of these stories has a universal truth embedded within it that others can appreciate – yet it is for each audience member to discern for themselves. When you tap into a universal theme or truth, listeners will either inhabit your story with you, or it will remind them of their own story. Either way, you’ve connected!
How Professional Speakers Use Storytelling
Professional speakers use stories strategically. You can too. A professional speaker’s stories are told not simply to entertain, but to tie into a main theme or learning point. Stories can illustrate a point, transition from one part of a presentation to another, change the pace of a presentation, or focus the audience’s attention. Stories validate and reinforce your message and can lead your audience to thoughtful reflection.
Work on Your Storytelling
Use these techniques to refine your stories and hone your storytelling skills:
- Write your stories out.
- Tell them informally to your friends to see what interests them – or doesn’t. Pay attention to what aspects of your stories they want to hear more about. Find out what your stories mean to them.
- Share your stories at your Toastmasters club and whenever you have the opportunity to give a presentation.
- Find a Story Swap (a regular gathering of storytellers where stories are freely exchanged) and ask for feedback before sharing your own story. (Check local libraries or storytelling guilds for more information on local swaps.)
- Record your stories. Now, pour yourself a glass of wine and listen carefully. How can you improve?
- Ask for feedback from your audiences through written evaluations, to discover which stories stuck, which stuck in their craw, and which are their favorites? Find out why – or why not – your story “works.”
- Listen to storytelling on National Public Radio – for example, Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, Ira Glass’s This American Life, and the oral histories of StoryCorps. You can also enjoy true stories told live on The Moth, themoth.org.
- Practice, practice, practice!
Past District Governor Craig Harrison, DTM of Oakland California’s Lakeview Toastmasters (2767-57), is also a former board member of the Storytelling Association of California, producers of the Bay Area Storytelling Festival. He founded Expressions of Excellence!™ to provide sales and service solutions through speaking. For more resources visit: www.ExpressionsOfExcellence.com and SpeakandLeadwithConfidence.com
Thank you Craig!
Are you ready to improve your storytelling? Discover the secrets behind effective storytelling.
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