Storytelling and Public Speaking

Over the past three years, I have presented more than 150 speeches and workshops. My presentation content and style have evolved during that time gauging audience energy and response (including tweets) to hone key points, give stories more color, and create opportunities for meaningful interaction.

I was recently asked to lead a workshop at The Opportunity Youth Investment Fund conference on storytelling, sharing what I’ve learned about clearly and powerfully communicating an organization’s story and impact. To prepare for this, I reflected on my own lessons and consulted a book I’ve found helpful: Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath, and used their framework.

I approach my keynotes with four key principles that I have tried to uphold for my audiences:

  • Emphasize and organize around 2-3 headline ideas I want people to remember;
  • Show, don’t tell – tell stories with meaningful arcs to illustrate ideas and use images more than words on slides;
  • Don’t talk for more than 15 minutes without allowing people to talk with each other (I usually engage 2 breakouts within my usual 45 min. keynote. It builds energy and relevance for the audience)
  • Speak to the back of the room. Movement, volume, and energy are directed to the back because if I engage them I’ll have everyone in front, too.

When I read the Dan and Chip Heath’s book, I found much that resonated with those principles. For my workshop, I engaged the participants in some storytelling and listening activities, and then presented the first 12 minutes of my usual keynote and then de-constructed it using the SUCCES framework from the Heath brothers’ book.

Simple: Get to your core message and make it compact. Don’t bury the lead. People should walk away remembering your headline ideas.

Unexpected: Get and maintain attention. Break assumptions and expectations. Create mystery. Shift from what do I want to convey to what do I want listener to ask?

Concrete: No jargon. Put people and memorable details in the story. Show them, don’t just tell them. Beware the curse of knowledge – you have more context than others and care more about the details.

Credible: Help people agree. Demonstrate your credibility and utilize external credibility that supports your point. Make statistics accessible through context and comparison (i.e., the new state education initiative will cost the average taxpayer less than $15 a year instead of it will cost $300 million over four years).

Emotional: People care about story of one more than mass (i.e., tell a great story about one person and then connect that story to your broader impact). Appeal to self-interest, identity, aspiration, values. Appeal to heart first, then head.

Story: Simulate. Help people solve problem with you. Walk people through the journey so they can see themselves in the story.

I think their book and this framework is a great guide for communicating effectively. Too often, nonprofit leaders lead with a jargony mission, describe complex program services, provide data on impact, and do it all in slides filled with the words they are speaking. This does not work. I used to do it, too.

After I wrote my book, I created an entirely different presentation. I began by telling stories of incredible transformation and then highlighting 3 key ideas that the rest of my presentation backed up through additional stories. People didn’t need all the complexity of our program and all the data. I reduced the number of slides I used, and the words in my slides. I added more images. I began inviting my audiences to tell stories, too, to ground them in and reinforce the core ideas.

I also learned that my authentic story is important. I began sharing how I came to this work, why I believe in it, and even sharing my struggles with the work. I established credibility and relatability, and audiences responded well.

One final point. Ask for feedback. When people compliment you, ask why and what they liked best? Ask audience members, “Was there anything confusing? Was that story too long? What was the biggest headline you took away?” And if your audience tweets, see what they tweeted – does the stream capture the headlines you want remembered? Paying attention to the frameworks above, seeking feedback, and just getting more practice will evolve your presentations more simply and powerfully.