Improve Public Speaking with Three Techniques for Better Storytelling

Presentation skills guru Patricia Fripp
Presentation skills guru Patricia Fripp

Improve Public Speaking with Three Techniques for Better Storytelling

By Patricia Fripp, Presentation Skills Guru

Everybody loves a good story. No matter what our culture, we grow up knowing that hearing a story is somehow a reward. Stories are how we learn values and our family’s legacy. When we go to school, we discover that stories are a way to make history come alive. In business, we realize stories help us explain the complex and the best way to train our associates.

Wise leaders, managers, and sales professionals are well served to develop an arsenal of great stories and good examples. Good stories help differentiate us from our competition.

Steve Ball of Microsoft was in charge of finding the right music to be the boot-up sound for the Vista operating system. He brought in three professionals from the worlds of music and Hollywood – for six seconds of sound! Steve explained the importance, saying, “Part of the sound was also used in our email program. That translated into this sound being heard more than any other music ever heard, including the Beatles.”

The professional that was chosen was Robert Fripp, guitarist and founder of King Crimson. Steve explains how he came to the decision: “All the artists created a sound that would have worked. However, Robert told the best story of how his music best represented Vista.”

Sometimes, the most unlikely people tell great stories. Often a coworker in the break room will have you in stitches as she regales you with tales of what happened taking the bus to work. Then the head of Finance walks in, and halfway through his story everyone says, “It’s time to get back to work!”

Why is it so few have the skill? How often have you heard someone tell a rambling story that seemed to go nowhere, or you are left wondering, “What was the point?” These three techniques will help you turn simple stories into examples that will be remembered and frequently repeated.

Think chronologically
As kids, most of our stories started with “Once upon a time….” Take that advice. When did your story happen? Where is your story set? From whose eyes is the audience going to see the story? Stories work best when told in the order it actually happened; it is easier for you and the audience to remember it. While you develop your example, add as many details as you can remember. After you have your outline, take the advice of Alfred Hitchcock: “A movie is like life with all the dull parts left out.” Meaning cut anything that is irrelevant or boring.

Classic movie formulas that can help you are: “A day in the life,” “Something happened…,” “And the result of that is…,” “And the result of that is….”

Shorter sentences or phrases
Ron Arden, the speech coach and stage director, told me, “The written word is for the eye, the spoken word is for the rhythm.” When we read, it is easy to look back and read over a paragraph again. When we speak, we need to keep the audience with us. Present information in shorter segments than you would write.

Consider each sentence a “scene”
Speakers need to present information in the way the audience “sees” the message. When putting together a story, consider each sentence a “scene” as it would be in a screen play. Try writing your notes down the page, line-by-line, rather than in paragraphs; it will be much easier for you to internalize. The audience will be transported to a different time and place and be able to emotionally connect that much more.

Putting it together
A recent example of a sales professional who impressed his managers and peers as he incorporated these three ideas is Mark, a District Sales Manager from a biotech company. He was preparing to moderate a panel at the Las Vegas National Sales Meeting and was nervous with his new role in front of a 100-person audience. He had been moving fast to understand new products, clients, and products. His mission in the speech was to encourage the audience to embrace new jobs in different areas and to appreciate they would have to “move fast” to get up to speed. He had even included a quote about “moving fast” in his email signature line. But even with his fast moving, Mark did not have any idea how to set the tone for the meeting.

He remembered a story from last years’ sales meeting of how his wife came in for the weekend; they went to see David Copperfield, and he made her disappear. Using the three techniques advice, it was easy for Mark to create a short, meaningful story that set the right tone for the panel and earned rave reviews.

“After last years’ sales meeting, (Gives the timeframe)
my wife Tammy came to Las Vegas for the weekend.
We went to see David Copperfield’s magic show. (Something happened…)
Three quarters of the way through his performance, Copperfield threw two dozen balls into the audience. (Creating the visual scene)
Tammy caught one. (Using shorter sentences)
David said, ‘If you touched a ball, please come on the stage.’
He sat 24 people on bleachers and covered them with a tarp.
Whoosh! Five seconds later, they were gone!
Suddenly, they appeared at the back of the room.
On the way out, I asked Tammy, ‘How did he do it?’
She said, ‘We are sworn to secrecy. However, we did have to move really fast!’”

Mark reported, “The panel was a wild success, and everyone raved about my opening story!”
Patricia Fripp’s next speaking school and coaching camp is in Las Vegas June 15-17, 2012