In the early days of my blog, back in 2008 (almost a decade ago!) when I argued for more storytelling in public speaking, the idea was radical. Now, it has gone mainstream, nearly. Almost everyone pays at least lip service to the importance of storytelling in public speaking, and some people are even actually doing it.
And yet neither of the two major party candidates for the American presidency told stories in truly effective ways in their speeches at their own nominating conventions. There was lots of attitude, and pointed critiques of the other party, even some anecdotes, but precious little real storytelling.
Why? Why is there so little storytelling at the top level of political and business speaking? Three reasons.
First of all, it’s hard to tell good stories. Stories require characters, conflict, change, and resolution. Politicians, and business people too, want to present themselves as unchangingly good or pure or consistent. So telling a story in which they reveal vulnerabilities and grow from their experiences – that’s humbling, and it’s hard.
For politicians in particular, the real stories sometimes go untold simply because what goes on behind the scenes isn’t pretty. When I worked in state government, the kinds of things I saw and the stories I was able to tell afterward were all-too-human struggling to deal with difficult situations and complicated issues. It’s hard to make good stories out of such material for public consumption. They work better one-on-one at the bar. (Remind me, the next time you’re seated next to me at the bar, to tell you the one about the state police security detail and the man walking his dog.)
Second, for fear of losing the audience’s attention, speakers go for the cheap shot or the rhetorical flourish, rather than taking the time to develop a good story. Secretary Clinton had a line in her recent convention speech: “He (Mr. Trump) spoke for 70-odd minutes. And I do mean odd.” As jokes go, it was a mild one and not particularly new. But it drew a laugh because it was a way of clarifying and cementing the shared attitude of Mrs. Clinton and her audience.
And, of course, it’s a cheap rhetorical shot. It doesn’t require any investment in truly analyzing the opposing point of view and taking it apart. It’s easier than telling a story about the effects of Mr. Trump’s policies on the country. (And before you jump in with partisan comments, both candidates were guilty of cheap rhetorical shots rather than analyzing the other point of view.)
Third, the storytelling art requires both familiarity with the details and distance from the story itself. A great story demands just the right amount of detail, no more and no less. To get that right you have to have lived the story in question – or be a master of the art and know what to include and what to leave out. But to have the right perspective, you have to have a little distance on the actual events. Immediate stories, with all their twists and turns, and detail, are never as interesting for others as they are for those who just lived them.
The first way we kill stories is by drowning the audience in detail because we don’t have the distance to see what’s important – essential – and what isn’t.
Recently, I was working with a client on a speech about the future of the company. The client had the courage to open the talk with a very personal story of a time when his own future was uncertain because of illness.
The audience was riveted. As my client said, “Once I’d hooked them with the story, I could have told them anything. I had them.”
And that’s the real tragedy of all these lost opportunities – times when stories should have been told and weren’t. Or were told, but not well enough. Once you hook your audience, you will have them, and you will have them for the better part of an hour. They will hang in there with you. They are yours.
We are so obsessed with shortening attention spans that we forget that the real reason attention spans are short is because most of what passes for public speaking isn’t worth listening to anyway.
Tell a good story and stand that sorry state of affairs on its head. Get your audience listening, rapt, to what you have to say. Do the hard work and develop a great story – for your sake and for the audience’s.
Learn all about great storytelling at our one-day Powerful Public Speaking conference in October in Boston. Details here.