I know you think storytelling is important, because you’re reading this blog post. Or do you need to be persuaded? The human mind is structured to remember stories, not facts, or things, or lists, or even ideas. Do you want proof?

Here it is. It’s a fact that we are much safer today, in 2016, from crime in general and terrorism in particular, than we were in the 1970s. The crime rate was much higher then, and the number of terrorist incidents was much higher then, too. And yet you don’t believe that. Why? Because your brain remembers the recent, horrible stories of attacks in San Bernardino or Paris or Brussels or somewhere else. You don’t remember stats, unless you’re a math nerd, and they’re few and far between.

The statistics can’t compete with the facts because your brain is wired to take incidents, especially horrible ones, especially more recent ones, and attach emotion to them, and create stories.

Stories are more memorable than the facts because stories fit our brains.

And yet, you don’t tell great stories when you give presentations. Why? Because good storytelling is hard. As I noted in a post back in August, storytelling is hard, it requires a bit of discipline and distance to know the right amount of detail to include, and the temptation is to go for shock value (and then the building blew up!) because that seems like it’s better storytelling – even though it isn’t.

Beyond that, would-be storytellers often tell anecdotes rather than great stories, because so much of life is like an anecdote – something happens, but there’s no resolution. And so we fall into the trap of thinking that great stories should be like life – open-ended, messy, and unresolved.

Further, wannabes leave out the conflict that a great story requires because conflict – real conflict – is hard to deal with in the open-handed way that, say, Shakespeare knows to use. He presents us with heroes and villains, but he makes us see the villain’s point of view, his humanity, because otherwise you just have unconvincing melodrama. So great storytelling requires a great heart, one that can see and understand opposing points of view.

Perhaps that’s why politicians these days have such a hard time telling great stories.

Finally, speakers don’t tell great stories because they want to make themselves the heroes, and a truly great speaker makes the audience the hero of her story, not herself.

Those are some of the obstacles to great storytelling in speeches. If you’re still game for trying, here are a couple of strategies to think about.

First of all, make the stakes high enough. There’s an old Hollywood nostrum to the effect that, if a scene is dragging, you introduce a gun. That immediately raises the stakes, because someone could get killed. How can you make your story about life and death? Shakespeare knew that those were the themes worth telling stories about. Everything else is small beer.

Second, tell us a quest, or one of the other great stories that have stood the test of storytelling time, for tens of thousands of years, and still enchant us. I’ve blogged on this point before. See here for a complete list of the greatest stories.

It’s a huge mistake to think that your story needs to be completely new. We like stories best when we understand the structure of them; when we know where they’re going. If you tell us a compelling quest, we’re enthralled because we know that, after a long and arduous journey, the hero will win through to the goal because of her grit and determination. We just want to see how hard the journey is and how determined the hero. Oh, and can you make us, the audience, the hero? Even better.

Third, use the storytelling structure to present us with a problem to solve. Our minds are hard-wired to want to solve problems when you present them to us in the right way. That engages us, enrolls us, and propels us on the journey.

To become a great storyteller, embrace one of the ancient structures, like the quest. Embrace the conflict, raise the stakes, and give us a worthy problem to solve. If you can do all that, we will listen to you all day.

We’ll have an all-day storytelling feast on Oct. 28th in Boston – Powerful Public Speaking, a one-day workshop.  More information here!

5 Comments

  1. My manager reads your blog, too. She sent me an email saying: “The best line of this post is:
    ‘Speakers don’t tell great stories because they want to make themselves the heroes, and a truly great speaker makes the audience the hero of her story, not herself.’
    Eva, this is exactly what you do. You make the audience feel like the hero because they have the power to save lives.”

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