Public Speaking? Start with a story

tell a story

There are 2 really bad ways to start a speech, and most of the time when I hear someone speak in public, one or other of them is used.

The most common way, and one that I have fallen into the trap of doing myself a few times, is to throw up a slide with the title of your speech on it, your name, position, perhaps your twitter handle. You say ‘hello’, or something like that, thank the person who introduced you, then repeat the title slide with your name, and flick to a second slide with the agenda for your talk on it: maybe 4 or 5 bullet points sunken into a nice visual background, repeating that also.

I suppose we do this because it is the natural order of things. We had to do a cover sheet for our assignments at school, and we did a contents page. When we got to talk about our assignments in class, we were encouraged to do a power point slide with the title of our talk on it, and then the agenda for our talk. This was how we began our public speaking career.

Part of the reason this is so bad is that the human brain can read your slides very fast. Very, very fast. By the time you have taken your first breath on stage, and the slide has been up there for 0.5 seconds, the audience has already read it.

SO WHY ARE YOU READING IT OUT TO THEM?!!!!!

OK, now this is not the very worst way of starting a speech, but it is the second worst. The worst is to shamble up to the podium, look around the room, glance at your watch, adjust your notes, cough a few times, drink some water, murmur ‘Ermmm… ummmm … good morning/afternoon/evening..’ and then follow this with an apology of sorts (as if to curry favour with your audience)…”Errr, sorry, I’m not very used to public speaking… errr, how long have I got? OK, well, here we are, ummmm, today I’d like to…”

Cue slumping of audience, flicking open of social media from the audience’s smartphones, and you’re off to the worse possible start. You’ve lost your audience, and you’re only 15 seconds in.

There is ONLY ONE good way of starting a speech.

Well, possibly two. The second best method is to start with a quirky, surprising statement that takes people by surprise and makes them think.

“More photos will be taken this year than in the entire history of the planet to this date.” That’s it, your first sentence. ‘OK’, think the audience, ‘we’re off to the races here’ and they sit up.

If I was speaking about digital disruption/transformation (my favourite subjects) then this might get me off and cracking.

But it’s not the best start. The best start is to start with a story. The adult equivalent of ‘Once upon a time’.

The best orators do it, every time. JFK, Martin Luther King, Obama.

Steve Job’s wonderful Stanford commencement address in 2005 is 15 minutes long and has 3 stories from his life. Wonderfully, simply told, with points made powerfully. (If you’ve not heard it, please do yourself a favour and watch it.)

It’s such an easy technique, I am amazed not everyone does it. We are all wired to listen to stories. It’s how our ancestors and their ancestors before them passed down their learnings, around the camp fire, from generation to generation over millennia. It’s how we as children learned our vocabulary, and bonded with our parents by our bed at night.

It does not matter if you have a 20 minute keynote at a business sundowner or an hour long keynote at a conference. Launch into a story. Straight away.

Have a visual on the slide (no words) if you like. But no bullet points. No elaborate diagram.

Choose a story that will transform your audience, take them with you and fire their imagination. You’ll have them (immediately) eating out of your hands. Take 5 minutes or so telling your story, in all its detail, using lots of layered description: the colour of the sky, the ebb and flow of the waves, the scream of the seagulls. Transport your audience. If you do this well enough, at a good pace, they will come with you. Practice it. Many times, until it is fantastic.

Once the story is over, make the point(s) count. The story is a device to grab your audience, and make the analogous links to what you want to get across. Your (few) bullet points or visuals can help ram it home.

I have a hand full of favourite stories I like to wield in public speeches: one is about the germination of the idea for my startup, which actually happened (true story) the same night my wife and I were dragged on stage to perform with Dame Edna.

Or I might talk about the ‘cup drop moment‘. Another relates to a young motorcyclist in June 1994 doing a U-turn, just before D-Day, of the convoy of trucks down a narrow country road, using a field and a gate. Yet another involves my Dad, who, unbeknownst to us had a growing tumour on his brain (thankfully benign) which, over 5 years,  grew to the size of a golf ball before anyone knew it was there.

I use these to grab the audience’s attention, draw them in, and make my points. They remember the story, and they remember the points. And perhaps, they remember me.

Next time you are delivering a speech, start with a good story, told well. Next time, and every time after that. Your audience will thank you for it, and as a means of communication, nothing beats it.

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4 thoughts on “Public Speaking? Start with a story

    • Absolutely – as long as it works. Jokes that involve a story rather than a one liner. I’ve seen people attempt a joke (worse, they introduce it as a joke – never do that) and fall flat badly. Recovering from that is hard!

  1. Charlie, Excellent reminder and so true.

    A relevant story, told swiftly (important) and well connected to the topic guides them in (and back from their devices 🙂 ).

    I have a moderator/panel chair role coming up in April and reading your post tonight has changed entirely my opening tack.

    I do want to know how Dame Edna begat aussiehome.com … but that’s for another day!

    Best rgds,

    Chris

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