Vaibhav Vadera shares his four top tips to help you decide which stories to tell

A motivational speaker stood in front of a large group of students at a high school in the West Midlands, UK. One of the stories told by the speaker involved a childhood friend, who had a different perspective on life from other people he knew. This friend lived life on his own terms. Rather than starting on a conventional career path, he went on to play guitar for one of the biggest punk rock bands of the 1980s.

It was a motivating story of grit and determination, except for the fact that the audience was completely unaware of this band. The speaker was met with blank stares. Whispers of “Who is he talking about?” and “What band is this?” swept around the hall. The young audience had never heard of this band and switched off.

It became quite clear that although the speaker was highly skilled at his job, his stories weren’t tailored for the specific audience of young people whom he had been asked to address.

A quick search on Google yields endless pages describing why we human beings love stories. It also highlights the ever-increasing scientific evidence that shows that an audience is more likely to retain factual information if it is presented with a story. A great story can make you laugh and even cry. It can be so exciting that you want to tell your friends the same story over and over again. Have you ever felt that way about a spreadsheet? I didn’t think so.

Stories can help sell products. Stories can encourage people to take specific action. Stories can be riveting. You don’t need me to tell you that. However, when you are speaking to an audience, it is crucial to pick the right story for the right audience. Otherwise, the audience will switch off if they struggle to relate.

Let me share four tips to help you decide which stories to tell when you are giving a presentation or speech yourself or if you are helping your executive prepare for one.

1. Build Your Story Gallery

Before you start delivering your story, it is important to have a curated gallery of stories from which you can choose. The beauty is that you can find a story almost anywhere. Here’s one way to do this. Pick an emotion. Let’s take joy, for example. Take a moment to think about the most recent time you felt a sense of joy. Then write this memory down. Include everything that happened before you felt that joy, and everything that happened after you experienced that feeling. (It may help to ask: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?) 

Guess what? You now have a relatable story about joy.

Next, practice telling this story. Record yourself and see if you can deliver it in a more engaging way. Then think of another time you felt joy and build another story. Repeat the same activity with different emotions, both positive and negative. By the end, you will have a few go-to stories that elicit different emotions.

Additionally, you can practice telling stories at different lengths. A good story can be 30 seconds long or 3 hours long depending on how much detail you want to include and how much time you have.

If you are speaking on stage, you will only have a certain amount of time to convey your message. But what if, for example, the speaker before you spoke for 4 minutes longer than they should have, which means your time has been cut by 4 minutes? You won’t have a choice. You will have to tell your story with less time. The opposite is also true if, for example, the previous speaker spoke for 4 minutes less than expected. Suddenly you have 4 more minutes to tell your story. Being flexible with your story length will allow you to be ready to tell your stories on any occasion. Have a short version, a medium-length version and a long version ready for whenever they are needed.

Once you have a gallery of stories, you can select different stories at different lengths to include as part of your next speech or presentation. This will give you the option of altering the story for different audiences if you are planning to deliver the story on more than one occasion.

2. Put Yourself in the Audience’s Shoes

Now that you have a gallery of stories, you can start thinking about your audience. Consider who is in your audience and their values, interests and challenges. Try to really empathise with how they may be feeling. This will help you to decide what story best fits them. (Notice how I said “them” and not “me”!)

Think about why they should listen to you. What is in it for them?

When you empathise with their struggles and challenges, they will want to hear more from you. One story may work for one audience but may have a different impact on a different audience.

For example, when I am speaking to an audience of men, I am going to tell raw, personal childhood and adulthood stories to show that it is acceptable to display emotions as a man. However, when I am talking to business leaders, my stories are going to be geared around overcoming hardship and being resilient despite facing uncertainty.

3. If All Else Fails, Mix It Up

Stories do not have to follow a linear structure. If you are still struggling with finding the right story that will have a lasting impact on the audience, then try mixing up existing stories. Try telling the story in a different way, perhaps from a different perspective or with a different narrative structure. Let’s take the classic children’s nursery rhyme ‘Humpty Dumpty’ as an example. Here is the original:

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again

Now, what if we took the same classic story and retold it from the perspective of one of the king’s men? It might look something like this:

I saw Humpty sitting on his own

Suddenly he fell and we heard a big groan

My friends tried to help him, he looked battered and blue

We tried and tried, but there wasn’t much else we could do

Finally, let’s see what the story would look like if it was told from Humpty’s perspective:

I needed a break, it was a hot day

I sat on the wall, but my leg gave way

A crowd gathered to see what they could do

Sadly, I have a broken leg, and a broken arm too

Although this is a nursery rhyme example, the point is still valid. The same story is told in different ways. Don’t assume you are stuck delivering your information in the same way. Mix it up, try a different angle. It is a nice way to get the creative juices flowing. You may be surprised by the results.

4. Trial and Error

You might not know the right story to tell straight away. You might not deliver it with the impact that you had originally intended. You might struggle to get started with a story gallery. That’s all OK! Don’t be hard on yourself.

Sometimes, it is a process of trial and error to find just the right story or a combination of stories. You can practice recording yourself in front of a camera or in front of friends. You will have moments when the audience might not understand a joke or a reference and that is completely fine. Just pause, compose yourself and continue. You will get there eventually.

Let me share a final thought: Don’t be afraid to share deeply personal stories. We all have different life histories with varied experiences that are a treasure trove of stories. You will find plenty of stories in your life that the audience you speak to will be able to relate to. They will also be able to learn from them. Often in an organisation, we want to guide people to take action or take new ideas on board. When this is the case, authenticity and transparency are key. Imagine that the story you are about to tell is your gift to each and every person listening.

Vaibhav Vadera is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and ... (Read More)

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