Earlier this week, I attended a storytelling workshop. I went because I know that stories help us remember and pay attention when listening to a presentation because it brings out our emotions. It makes sense, right? Think of what you remember from your childhood and your k-12 school days. You remember your best and worst teacher, but not the ones in between so much. You also remember your best and worst days. I vividly remember my 4th grade teacher. On the first day of school, she called me a liar because I said I’d read Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens as my summer reading assignment. She not only called me a liar, she ridiculed me and made me come to the front of the class and tell the class about the book, hoping to humiliate me further. After I told the class what the book was about, in detail, she apologized, but I can admit, I never felt comfortable with her or liked her. It was such a bad experience, I can remember her in vivid detail as well as the classroom. I can even remember the smell of the chalk dust and books. That would not be the case if it was a normal day, even though it was the first day of school.
A good story, grabs you because it makes you feel what the speaker is feeling and paints a picture in your mind. Doing so, forges neural connections and makes it more likely to stick. I was reminded of this during the workshop when two colleagues, shared stories about past experiences with their jobs that were painful and brought out strong emotions. The group listened intently and many had tears in their eyes as they listened to the stories even as the speakers themselves struggled with containing their emotions. It was a powerful experience. So much so, that one audience member who had clearly disagreed with one speaker as she started to talk, was clearly moved to rethink her position when the speaker finished. As the speaker started, her arms were folded and her body was compact and she was sitting back with a look of displeasure on her face. As the speaker continued to quietly explain her reasoning for her belief, I watched the woman in the audience start to lean forward. Her expression changed to one of interest and empathy and her arms unfolded. It was a startling transformation that took less than two minutes to complete. It was a great reminder of how a well told story, particularly one where the author feels strong emotions can effect great change.
When creating your story for your presentation, our speaker reminded us of three parts to the equation:
- Content – It needs to be true and accurate
- Craft – How you put the story together
- Character – The speaker and their energy, humor and presence. Are they genuine?
You might be thinking that you don’t need to look at your story because you are speaking from the heart, but it is important to get your facts straight and be sure your emotions aren’t overruling the true story. If you are seen as an alarmist and/or promoter of falsehoods, your story will not hold up in the long run. You can expect opposition, particularly on subjects that are emotional in nature but if you have your facts at hand and know all angles of the subject, you will likely convert others to your side of the discussion and if not, at least get them thinking about what you have said.
I remember, many years ago being with a friend who was speaking at a town meeting about a referendum that was very unpopular because of the additional taxes that would be required. The emotions in the audience were running high when she got up to speak. She had spent a great deal of time on the subject and knew all the ins and outs before she spoke. She also had great passion for her side of the argument, which went against the majority. I watched her speak with passion, eloquence as she calmly presented the facts. I also watched the audience slowly shift in her direction.
In her talk, she told them, here’s what will happen if we don’t do this and here’s what will happen if we do. She used concrete and compelling examples of both sides and also broke the cost down to each household. By the end of her five minute presentation, she had won over at least 95% of the audience. It was astounding to watch the change. The majority went from being passionately against to passionately pro the referendum and it passed easily the following week. If she hadn’t been prepared, it might have gone very differently.
So, for your next presentation, take a look and see what story you might share that will get your listeners attention and grab their emotions. I promise you it will be worth it.