By Rebecca Pepper, Toastmasters International
As a small child, I sat still, wide-eyed, following every movement my granddad made, entranced by every change of intonation as he regaled my younger brother and me with a story about the most magnificent adventure. My granddaddy had been in the depths of the jungle, machete in hand, hacking back leaves to stop them whacking into his face as he trudged, dripping with sweat, through the dark, abundant foliage. He stopped. Frozen. He’d heard a noise. A splash. There must be water nearby. Water – how he needed it; his canteen was down to its last tepid drop. He sniffed the air. He turned, and there, through the leaves and vines, he saw a pool of water. Rapidly, he stumbled towards it, throwing himself onto his knees into its wet blessed relief. He cupped some water in his hands, ready to splash his grimy, sweat-drenched face. But danger not relief was in store for my granddaddy. A crocodile! A crocodile in the pool of water. A crocodile with its beady eyes fixed on my granddaddy ready to attack. My granddaddy found himself in a wrestling match. A wrestling match to the death. A wrestling match with one of the most feared creatures in the jungle. Thanks to the strength, bravery and training my granddad had had, he was able to wrestle it to the ground underneath him. It whipped its tail and shifted my granddad’s weight. All of a sudden, its wide mouth, with its gleaming, sharp teeth was ajar. There was only one thing my granddad could do. He shoved his arm into the depths of the crocodile’s rancid body, grabbed the end of its tail and pulled it inside out! Victory was his!
My nanna then produced a handbag and a pair of shoes she’d been rummaging for upstairs as granddad spun his story. Proof. There they were. Bag and shoes made of green scaly crocodile.
Why has this story lasted so long? Why has it had such a big impact? Not all of my granddad’s tales did so what was special about this one? Let’s explore these questions as they relate to your presentations.
In business, being remembered can make a big difference. But being remembered so that others also tell your story for you is the goal. So how can you tell a story that will be remembered and told by others again and again?
As my granddad said there are two parts to a memorable story: the story itself and the storytelling.
The Story Itself
1. Your Audience
I heard my granddad re-tell the same story many times. Most often to his grandchildren, but also to a room full of adults and kids alike. Each time the story would change a little. He would pause in a different place, add the odd extra detail, miss out a detail I’d heard many times before.
Intrigued, I asked my granddad why he changed it so often – was he bored of telling it so many times that he needed to mix it up? Did he just forget? He paused before replying, held my gaze steady and said, “You’re assuming I change it for my needs. Never. The changes I make are always for those listening. Each time I tell it, the audience is different. Even with the same people, they may be a little bit – or a lot – older the next time I tell it, and so I adapt. I adapt to keep them interested. It’s all about them.
World champion speaker, Darren LaCroix, also says this: take you out of it. In telling a story, it’s about the audience, not you. Whether your audience is your six-year old grandchild or a room full of CEOs, your information, your message, your story has to be for them. What will your listeners get from you? For my granddad, it was about eliciting wonder and amazement in a child or making adult friends laugh. Whoever he spoke to, it was always about them.
Action: Tailor your story to the audience.
A great story transports the listener to the scene. Through the detail of what was seen, heard and felt, the listener experiences the story as if they were there. It’s important to get the balance right. Give too much detail and you take their involvement in creating the scene – in being part of the story – away. Give vague or generic detail and they are bored.
I once heard granddad tell the story without describing the jungle foliage or adding the detail of the sweat to share the jungle’s heat, and the story simply didn’t sparkle. Add enough detail through evocative language to give the listener the start of an image to which they can paint the full scene in their mind’s eye and thus step onto your stage.
Action: Add enough evocative imagery to pull in the audience.
The Telling of the Story
Once you’ve composed the story it is time to deliver it. This is where my granddad, supported by my lovely nanna, really came into their own.
1. The Moves
A great storyteller acts. They use the full space available and their full body to depict the scene. As granddad hacked through the foliage, his arm would hold an invisible machete and chop, chop, chop. He was purposeful with his movements. They each added to the story progression. No movement was superfluous. Every movement had the story move forward.
Even being still as he used…
Action: Use your stage, use your body – make them part of the story.
2. The Pauses
These were the true moments of power. The pause. The silence. The stillness. You waited, breathe baited, and the anticipation of what would happen next overwhelmed you. Just at the point of unease, it would stop and you would fall headlong into the next part of the story, in a heady journey of excitement and exhilaration.
The pause is the power for a storyteller. It is an invitation to your listeners to fully engage in your story and message. To be involved. To reflect. To answer the question you have posed in their minds. These are the points when your message is truly made.
Action: Give your audience the time and the space to engage with your story.
3. The Variety of Voice
Fast. Slow. Loud. Quiet. A whisper. Deep. High. All have their place in a memorable story. Use purposefully.
Action: Add color to your voice – avoid a monotone at all costs!
4. Consider Using Props
Not always essential, but it often adds light-hearted relief and can even enhance a message. For me, the story will forever be remembered as ‘crocodile shoes’. Did my granddad ever mention shoes in his story? Never. But my nanna did. As an important part of his storytelling, nanna’s props added a detail which added truth (?!!) and humor. And a long-lasting visual takeaway.
Action: Appropriate props can illustrate your story and help the audience remember you.
5. The Audience
Let’s go back to where we started and the message my granddad shared. It’s all about them. It’s all about your audience. His stories changed because he watched his audience responses. He continually met their needs. He sensed the mood, energy, and need and adapted accordingly. Sometimes the story would last an amusing couple of minutes. Other times, it would last for half an hour – each time meeting the needs of his mesmerized audience.
Your message is important. But without your audience’s buy-in, it’s going nowhere. Focus on how to create a story that will live in the hearts and minds of your audience, and your story – your message – will last a lifetime.
Action: It’s not about you or your business or your product – it’s all about the audience.
Your presentations will only be improved by the effective use of stories. I hope you’ll use these ideas and I’ll be hearing your story from someone else soon!
Rebecca Pepper is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organization 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 Ireland.
Members follow a structured educational program to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit Toastmasters International.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.