With the elements of your story staged and ready for delivery, it’s time to consider techniques for delivering the story well. These techniques pertain mostly to “stand-up” stories, which are delivered in person, but the principles are applicable to the delivery or presentation of any kind of story.
Make it live. Make it shine. Make it move.
For a story to grab an audience, it must be brimming with sensory language and action-filled words that take the listener on a living journey. It’s typical, in business communications, to default to generic descriptions and a passive voice. It feels safe to do this, yet it represents at best a lost opportunity.
The idea is to provide more than just basic information and generalized descriptions. You want to use words that stimulate the brain with physicality, action, and emotion. This means providing the names of your characters and all of their distinguishing features: age, color, clothes, quirks. It means including the specific locations of places, and what it looks and feels like to be in them. It means describing events like a play-by-play announcer, full of movement and energy.
The specific words you choose can have remarkable power, as we see in our next storytelling tip, “Paint the picture – Make it sensory and full of action.”
People love words that paint pictures, that convey action, and that bring a living, breathing situation to life. These kinds of words are the common casualties of the “Curse of Knowledge” (reviewed in Chapter 2), which is the blind spot we have when we fail to understand that our audience doesn’t know all the things that we know. Because of this, people often don’t include the most important descriptive details in their stories. Those details are so obvious and so clear in their mind’s eye that they just assume that everybody sees and feels them as well. But when we do this, we rob stories of their potential power – and we rob our audience of the full benefit of our unique expression.
Secrets of the unforgettable storyteller
For those who want to be great storytellers in an in-person setting, such as an industry presentation, keynote, or team meeting, here are some useful suggestions:
Practice, practice, practice!
Practice until you can’t do it any more, then practice again. For any presentation of significant importance, you should run through the entire thing at least twelve times in the forty-eight hours before delivery. The more you practice, the more natural you will appear and the less stiff your presentation will be.
At every stage in the process of building and delivering a story, quality feedback will make a measurable difference. Build time into your schedule for this. A formal coach or editor is worth the investment for a major effort, and for less-significant stories you will benefit by asking a friend or associate, “Can you please take a look at this and let me know what you think?” Make it clear that you’re open to constructive criticism, and people will give you invaluable suggestions and guidance. Don’t take anything personally. And remember that once your presentation is over, your work isn’t done. Gather feedback, ask for advice, and keep honing your skills.
This is essential but painful. Only narcissists and sociopaths enjoy watching themselves on video. But do it anyway. Use your phone and record yourself telling the story or giving the presentation. Then, watch it (all the way through!). This will show you things that will strike you so profoundly that you will never do them again. Do this over and over as you polish the effort. Good news: you can delete everything when you’re done!
Be aware of your voice
If you’re a loud person, don’t be afraid of belting it out; the people in the back of the room will appreciate it. If you’re quiet, you can command attention by mastering pacing and pauses, in the same way that negative space on a painting can make a subtle object stand out. In all cases, master the use of tempo changes, inflections, and pauses for dramatic effect. Moments of silence can be powerful.
Speak in proper sentences
Observe yourself and count the number of times you use words such as “um,” “like,” or “you know.” Listen to how so many sentences open with the word “so.” These unconscious vocalizations usually wander out of your mouth as you try to formulate and string together thoughts, and they detract from your impact. Train yourself to compose a discrete thought with intention and end it with a pause when you’re done. Be brave enough to be quiet while you think.
Public speaking is one of the most fear-inducing activities known to humanity. The anxiety involved tends to turn up the dial of panic and speed for many speakers. The trick is to proceed at about one-half the speed you feel to be appropriate. This means taking your time – time to articulate words completely, to let ideas sink in, and to allow for the possibility of drawing an unapologetic breath.
Assuming you’ve done your homework – you’ve practiced, your notes are in place, and the equipment is all working – try to have faith that you’re going to pull it off. Usually, the first few minutes are the hardest; after that you’ll find your legs. Try to look into the eyes of your audience. You’ll see that they’re glad you’re there. Fact is, they’re rooting for you.
These suggestions are all in the service of the most important storytelling element of them all: authenticity. This leads to our final tip, “Be real.”