Storytelling Can Kill Your Message

We tell stories because they paint pictures in people’s minds. When we get an audience – whether it’s one person or 2500 – thinking creatively and engaged in our story, then they’re active participants in our performance. Stories make our messages more memorable and persuasive, and they’re an essential element of public speaking.

We all know that there are times when stories fall flat, fail to convey a point, or even obscure a message. What’s gone wrong when the story kills our message? Keep reading.

1. When the story is all there is. Whether a speaker’s not properly focused or looking to stretch a speech, we’ve all experienced the flop that happens when a rambling story makes up the core of a speech. Even the most entertaining of stories is only effective if it’s used in support of some coherent, legitimate point. Stories should support a message, rather then being the entirety of the message, otherwise the speech becomes merely entertaining, rather than educational. When you’re preparing a speech, ask yourself what function each story serves, and if you can’t answer the question with a definite, productive function for a story, then the story may not belong. The story can’t be your core; it must play a supporting role.

2. When the story doesn’t compel the audience to act. The role of a story should be to illustrate or give an example of why your topic is important – why your audience should want to act after they’ve listened to you. A story should drive your point home in a way that simply stating the fact or listing reasons can’t do alone. Stories that fail to evoke an emotional response are a failure. Sometimes the solution can be as simple as making it clear why you chose to tell a particular story – what you want your audience to learn from each example you provide.

3. When the story overpowers the message. I’ve seen this problem crop up more times than I can count. Frankly, this mistake is typically the result of a lack of self control – when a speaker knows a story’s so compelling that he just can’t help sharing it … even though he knows full well that it’s somewhat off-topic, or worse yet, contradictory. Great speakers know how to cull through their stories and find the one that’s best suited to accomplishing a goal. Stories should support, rather than detract from a message, and when you’re polishing the final version of your speech, you must be ruthless. Cut any story that doesn’t serve a purpose.

4. When a story is disjointed or not meaningfully linked. Particularly in longer speeches, it’s essential to tie a story back into your message for your audience. You know why you selected any given story, but you have to make those connections explicit for your audience. Stand up comedians are masters at this tactic. They use call backs – references back to earlier themes or jokes – to weave a shared narrative for each performance. Move your audience through your speech, and connect all the dots for them. Pay attention to transitions between stories and your major points, and make sure that your audience’s journey is a seamless one.

5. When you’re the focus of all your stories. Yes, you may have been invited to speak, and yes, you may be the universally acclaimed expert in your field, but nothing turns an audience off quicker than the perception that a speaker is full of himself. Self-deprecation goes a long way, as does the selection of stories that don’t all feature you as the hero. Make sure you choose your stories carefully, pulling in, rather than alienating your listeners. If you find yourself saying “I” or “me” in every sentence, that’s a clue that your speech is too you-focused. Make sure your audience can relate to your subject by featuring stories that serve a purpose other than inflating your own ego.

Storytelling is how we preserved history before humans developed written language. Stories create the foundation and fabric of human relationships, and they’re key to creating connections among people all over the world. Storytelling is just one of the tools used by skillful public speakers, though, and the best speakers use stories carefully, deliberately, and with great effect.


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