Executives who want to improve their speaking skills are often advised to liven up their presentations by incorporating stories. The way I put it is, “Use stories, not statistics.” But that sage advice leads to the logical question: How do I make my point in a speech (and sometimes even in a press release) by telling a story?
If you’ve got kids, you probably already know, because they’ve badgered you to tell them stories and let you know what doesn’t work (“Too boring, Daddy!”) and what does (“Ooh, this is good!”).
Believe it or not, the general guidelines for creating interesting kids’ stories are the same as for folding stories into a speech.
START WITH SOMETHING YOU KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE UNDERSTANDS. With your kids, you pick something age appropriate. When you’re giving a speech, you have to be sure to start your story with a reference that will mean something to the specific group you’re addressing. Your employees will know a lot about the history of your company; your customers-especially new ones-will know a lot less.
SET UP A CONFLICT QUICKLY. Kids love stories with conflict. Audiences, too. If at all possible, draw contrasts between opposing points of view in your speech, describe working hard to overcome a rival in the marketplace, or find other ways to get conflict into your speech. It will add drama and keep your audience tuned in. One of the best speeches I’ve heard was by the then-CEO of chip-maker AMD describing how his company had “valiantly fought the Goliath” (Intel).
STOCK THE STORY WITH OBVIOUS HEROES AND VILLAINS. Speaking of Goliath, in a speech, setting up heroes and villains not only entertains, it also helps to win the audience over to your point of view.
DON’T FORGET THE STICKING POINT. Most of the time, you’re just telling kids a story to entertain. But every once in a while you use a story to teach them a lesson about life or maybe even deliver a warning. The point of many executive speeches is to convince an audience of something-about your company, about a product, about a company policy, etc. To do that, you need to include one telling fact or detail that will resonate with the audience and stick with them.
“Unless we act now, the United States will stagnate, the way Japan did in the 1970s.”
“Sarbanes-Oxley has become little more than a full employment act for accountants and business consultants.”
And on and on.
A HAPPY ENDING. You always have one for your kids, of course. It’s a little trickier in a call-to-action speech. You want the audience to believe there CAN be a happy ending, but only if they do what you want them to do: support legislation, buy a product, invest in the company, etc.
For an executive giving a speech, of course, the best happy ending is enthusiastic applause.
Dr. Jeffrey Porro, Ph.D. has written “first-person speeches” and provided communication strategies for the CEOs of Sodexo, Eastman Chemicals, the McGraw Hill Companies, Office Depot, the COO of General Mills, as well as for diplomats such as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, other government leaders, and presidents of some of the nation’s leading trade and professional associations. In addition to offering his expertise to world and business leaders, he has extended his skills to the world of entertainment. Dr. Porro discovered and researched the true story of a Jim Crow-era African American college debate team, and helped turn it into the 2007 feature film The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington.
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