Storytelling techniques for speakers
What do I mean by ‘story’?
The word ‘story’ gets used in different ways, in different media.
If we take it right back to a dictionary definition it can be:
‘The description of an event or series of events.’
In the context of public speaking, I think it’s really worth exploring the skills linked to the ‘description’ part, even if you never use ‘story’ in an extended way (the ‘series’ of events).
It’s worth thinking for a moment about why storytelling has persisted in the development of humans, throughout centuries, and across the world. Why it’s an activity that we often engage in, from being a tiny child through to an adult – whether it’s via books, or games, or films or podcasts, or recounting what has happened this week with our friends.
As a vehicle for communication – sharing lessons, and points of interests – it’s intensely human, and helps us connect. As the listener we might get to picture the scene, or feel what it was like, whether it was a moment of frustration, something funny, or a problem faced. We get to relate. We remember what was shared.
For all these reasons and more it’s worth considering where storytelling techniques might help to strengthen your talks. They can be used in moments, and to bring short examples to life. It does not have to be an extended story, with a long arc, unless you want it to be.
STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES TO CONSIDER
A place to start is to ask yourself…What specific details might help another human to understand, picture, or remember what I am sharing?
In storytelling, there are a number of areas where you can focus this attention. For example:
1) Location – in time and space:
Brief, specific details of the WHERE and/or WHEN can quickly help to set a scene.
‘It was my first summer after finishing college, and I was all set to interview for…’
places us in a different time than…
‘I was in my third year of figuring out how to lead an ever-growing remote team when…’
And this doesn’t just apply to personal stories. Say you wanted to consider a project, a process, or certain developments within your company. You get to think about how you want to construct the timeline in your talk.
For example…Do you want to introduce it through a moment from this week? Last month? A year ago? Ten years ago? Projecting forwards into the future?
2) Engaging the senses (plus interior landscape):
Again, brief specific details can help listeners connect with what you are saying. You get to be selective about what seems relevant, and fits in your style of speech. Two key areas to consider include:
What you saw:
You get to combine details in different ways, so for example, you might set the scene quickly and then include a visual detail.
‘It’s just a regular Wednesday, I’m on my second cup of coffee, I look at my screen and this is what I see…’
What you heard:
Lines of dialogue can be great for quickly conveying what happened in a relevant moment.
‘And I was like, you know what, you’re right. We need to…’
I think it’s also worth considering…
What you thought:
You get to humanize and provide commentary, for all kinds of situations.
‘The first time I got it to X I remember thinking, why has nobody showed me it can do this?!’
How you felt:
‘I have to admit, my first response was…’
‘In 30 seconds my frustration levels went from about a 2 to a 20.’
You can borrow from some of the structural elements of stories, in a way that makes sense for your material.
It doesn’t have to be complicated.
In Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’, where he breaks down narrative structure in relation to plays, he literally starts with: beginning; middle; and end.
And then suggests that these three components map to: introduction; complication; resolution.
If you chart a person, project or company from one point to another, you are engaging with change and a possible story arc.
It can be really short – applied to a moment of struggle, an obstacle, or a decision.
It can take place over a day, a week, a month, a year – and you get to decide how much detail is relevant and possible in the time that you have.
These are some of the frequent options that help to provide structure for speakers:
A challenge; a choice; an outcome
Problem; cause; solution
Problem; failure; solution
Whatever the length of the arc, it can often be linked to lessons learned. Whether it’s what you’ve experienced working on a project, or whether it’s a character’s journey in Star Wars or Toy Story.
3 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR STORYTELLING AS A SPEAKER:
1) Watch a talk to see how the speaker uses storytelling techniques:
In this talk by Tim Urban, he drops us right into the time and place of a story. You can see it in the first couple of minutes, or read it in the transcript.
2) Quick, everyday practice:
Next time you are sharing what has happened in your day or week with a friend, add in a specific detail that might help them understand, picture, or remember what you are saying. This is great practice.
For example, if I say ‘I took my dog for a walk.’ it is so general, your brain may or may not generate a picture for this. If I say ‘I wrapped up with my final client about 6pm, and then took my dog out. It was already getting dark and so…’ …Now there’s a visual detail that starts to set the scene.
We have so many choices when it comes to details…What kind of dog? Where was I headed? What kind of coat did I put on? Don’t let these overwhelm you. You don’t have to create an entire scene, like a novelist. You’re just practicing using specific, relevant details.
And great news – you will probably already be doing this naturally in different situations. Now you get to experiment and hone these skills. And apply to them different aspects of your life – whether it’s the project that you’re working on, or a specific moment in a meeting with your team.
3) Test out a storytelling technique on a talk
Go through your outline for an existing talk (or sketch a new one). Pick one place in your outline, and consider it in relation to a storytelling technique that interests you. What would you try out? Jot down notes to yourself. And then try it out loud, even if it’s just for 60 seconds.
It’s always great to make a start, and there’s always a way to improve.