When is a Story Not a Story

One of the big trends in communications these days is storytelling. “If you are giving a presentation, start with a story.”  Good advice that I am guilty of giving, as well.  The reason it is good advice is because stories are the easiest way for most people to communicate. We are more relaxed when telling stories than at any other time.  Audiences seem to like stories. Research shows that people remember stories better and longer than any other form of communications.  Nervous speakers are less nervous when they can start their presentation with a story.  And all speakers who start with a story launch their presentation with a higher degree of confidence, which carries through the rest of the presentation.

So.  What’s the problem?

Recently I saw a tape of an industry gathering. It had a dozen speakers over the course of the day. Each and every speaker started with a story.  Almost each and every speaker told you they we’re starting with a story “I’d like to start by telling you a story about…” And, in almost every case the story technique didn’t work.

In some cases the story technique didn’t work because people told a story that had absolutely nothing to do with their topic or takeaway. It was just a gratuitous story they told because someone in their office read an article about the importance of starting with a story, so they told about the time they hit a baseball through Mrs. Murphy’s plate glass window.

Some of the speakers started by announcing that they wanted to share a story, but it really wasn’t a story.  It was the steps they took in research and execution to develop a particular campaign.  It was a recounting of the chronology of a certain event. That ain’t a story. That’s a report.

The remainder of the speakers worked hard to get the story to relate to their topic or takeaway, although it was sometimes strained.  Their problem was that they were reading the story to the audience, not telling it.  There was no emotion. No joy in telling a story. No interesting language or suspense. No big payoff. Absolutely nothing memorable.

A story is a self contained unit. It has its own open, middle and close.  It should hit some basic emotional notes that we can all relate to.  To paraphrase E.M. Forster, “The King died. The Queen died” is not a story.  It is a listing of facts.  “The King died. The Queen died of a broken heart” is a story because it introduces the emotional element which then gives the audience permission to think about what kind of relationship the king and queen had. How he must have loved her, what their marriage was like, what kind of king he was, etc.  When you tell a real story, it shows in your body language and voice. There’s more modulation, more pauses, more working the audience.  When you tell a story that’s not a story, it’s like reading a shopping list.

This is subtle. So let me try to recreate the best use of a story I ever heard.  Carl was the head of historic preservation for a construction company.  His firm was pitching a prestigious and historic private high school.  The school had a chapel that had lots of custom designed wood:  seats, rails, banisters, steps and other things.  The school was looking for a construction company to take on refurbishing this 100 year old chapel and was rightly concerned about getting someone who understood the value of this beautiful wood. The budget was $12 million.

Four construction firms pitched for the business. When Carl’s firm came in, he brought with him a carton that was previously used for his son’s Sony Play Station.  Carl stood at the conference room table facing the school’s building committee and put the carton in front of them.  He said, pointing to the carton “Sony Play Station. I’m sure some of you got this as a gift for your kids this Christmas. Let me show you what my father used to give me for Christmas when I was growing up.  (Carl reaches into the box and removes a tool) Each year he would give me an antique tool that he used and that his father, my grandfather used every day. Both my father and my grandfather were master carpenters. They would be called in to work on complicated projects. They brought their own tools.  This tool allowed them to plane the curved handrail, like you have in your chapel, this one… (He went on to describe 4 other tools).  These tools probably helped shape your chapel because my grandfather worked on this project, my father worked on this project, and I can’t think of anything more important in my life than for me to be involved as well.”

He went on a bit more. He explained what his role would be in the project and how his construction firm would address key issues.  But, he didn’t need to say another word. He won the account. With the story.

A story is best told with great relish.  It’s told at a different pace than the rest of the presentation.  There’s real joy in telling a story. More pauses. More modulation. More connecting with the audience.

There is nothing more important in a presentation than the opening.  Instead of deciding that you are going to start with a story, decide first what the takeaway is that you want the audience to remember. The takeaway should be a benefit to the audience. It’s not about you.  Once you are certain of the takeaway, see if there are any stories from your own experience or that of your company’s that relate to the takeaway. If there is one, tell it.  If there isn’t, find a different way to open the presentation.

If you do decide to tell a story whether in the open, middle or close, tell it. Don’t read it.  If you need to look at notes in order to convey the story, it’s probably not a real good story for you to tell.  If you are going to read a shopping list and call it a story, use something else.  But if you have a story that plays to the theme in your presentation, practice it and tell it with great vigor.

 

 

 

 

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