Storytelling For Public Speaking

I’ve gone to numerous Quantified Self meet ups and conferences, and I’ve sat through untold numbers of Show and Tell talks. They tend to follow a similar pattern: Identify what you measured, show a few charts, and end with some spurious correlations. These have ranged from actually pretty interesting to mind-numbingly boring. Every so often one of these talks stands out, because the speaker is a storyteller.

I’ve also seen plenty of other public speakers, and when I decided to put myself up on stage last year, I took some time to try to figure out what makes a good talk. I’ve never been super-enthusiastic to get on stage, but once there I usually do okay. Before I give a talk I spend a fair amount of time organizing the material into a storyline, and then I practice a lot.

The truth is, you can take the most boring presentation in the world and bring it to life by telling a story. Watch Brené Brown’s talk on vulnerability  for a great example of storytelling from someone who rejects the label storyteller. Presenting research like this can be pretty linear and academic, but Brown makes her point by telling stories — particularly personal stories — rather than presenting “just the facts ma’am” in a linear way. This is one of the most popular videos on the TED site.

What makes a good story? Emotional connection, tension, and satisfying resolution. There are many other elements that go into a good story, but for public speaking, these three seem to make a big difference.

Emotional connection can come through humor, poignance, and most especially vulnerability (see Brown’s talk) from the speaker. A speaker who is willing to reveal his or her true self on stage will almost always find an engaged audience. Emotional connection is also fostered by the use of descriptive detail. The less abstract, the better.

Tension means not giving away all the answers out of the gate. Let your audience join you as you discover the answers, or uncover new questions. Tell the story of your exploration that led you to this talk.

A satisfying resolution means that the audience leaves feeling like they discovered something. It wasn’t merely a competent wrap-up, it was an a-ha moment. Maybe it was a relief, to hear how it all turned out. Maybe there was a twist at the end. Maybe there’s a nugget of wisdom to take home.

When I was preparing my “Grandma was a Lifelogger” talk, I struggled to formulate a story. I was trying to get across the story of my grandma’s first love, while connecting her story to my story and the practice of lifelogging. It wasn’t immediately clear how I could draw those connections. But as I started map out her story — and the details revealed themselves — I started to see shadows of her life extending into my own. The talk went over incredibly well, because of the humanity of the story.

Storytelling can be just as impactful in client presentations, job interviews, and meetings. Try writing out the story you want to tell, and read it aloud. Even record it and play it back. What will your audience hear? What will draw them in?