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Executive communications expert Dianna Booher shares tips on telling a great story

People can argue with facts all day. But they can’t argue with your experience or your story. When you present your case as information, statistics, or data to be digested, people move into analysis mode. Lights go on; wheels whir in an attempt to “take the other tack” and prove you wrong. But when you offer an illustration or personal experience, they relax and listen for the idea.

Like a scriptwriter, think in themes, scenes, and storylines. Instead of laying out platitudes, create a compelling story to get your point across. Stories include humorous anecdotes, slices of everyday life, success stories, or failure stories (use these to build trust and balance the picture about what you and your organization can and cannot do).

Think “theme.Shakespeare had his 26 plot lines. Business storytellers have their favorite key themes and initiatives from year to year and decade to decade: “The Customer Is Always Right.” “Content Is King.” “Quality Is Our Number One Goal.” “Nothing Happens Until Somebody Sells Something!” “David Versus Goliath.” “People Are Our Most Valuable Asset.” “Change Never Ends.” “Great Leaders Are Made, Not Born.”

With the theme in mind, identify an appropriate story to illustrate that point. What customer incident can you relate to your executive team to persuade them to act on your recommendations? What happened at the industry meeting that underscores to your colleagues the need for competitive intelligence sharing among them? What personal experience can you tell that helps your staff know what you value most in their performance? What tidbit of conversation did you overhear last week in the cafeteria that illustrates the team spirit you feel in your division? What happened last with your most satisfied client?

Identify the punch line. It may be funny, dramatic, sad, shocking. That’s where you end the story. Everything needs to build up to that point. Say the punch word in that punch line last.

Set up the story in an intriguing way. Don’t wave a flag by saying, “Let me tell you a story that illustrates why I think blah, blah, blah.” Instead, try something like, “Honesty can kill your business. Last week I made the mistake of being honest with one of our suppliers about X. Tuesday of this week, I get a call from J.T. Wilbot there, who says to me,….” And you’re off into the story. Whatever setup you use should make people say, “Tell me more.”

Keep the details relevant. Just like the movie scriptwriter, use enough details so that your listener can visualize what’s happening. But omit details that contribute nothing to the setting, mood, or point.

Let us see the action. To make fullest impact, set your characters in motion. Let us hear them talk and see them act. As the storyteller, don’t get between the audience and the action, merely telling us what you heard and saw earlier. Let people see for themselves—just as they do when sitting in the theatre. Cast the characters, re-create the scene, and start the dialogue.

Transition to your point. So what’s your point? Never tell us what the story means. Interpreting the punch line kills a good joke, and it’ll also ruin a great story. Tell the story and stop—just like the movie screen fades to black. Be silent. Let the audience soak up its meaning. Then, and only then, bridge to your point in the presentation, conversation, or meeting.

Why tell a story rather than dump data or prepare platitudes? Storytellers hold mindshare longer than most people. A well-chosen story can help you deliver an emotional wallop that makes the point memorable and persuasive. That’s presence, and that’s staying power!

Dianna Booher, an expert in executive communications, is the author of 46 books, published in 26 countries and 20 languages.  Her latest books include Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader and Communicate with Confidence, Revised Edition. As CEO of Booher Consultants and as a high-caliber keynote speaker, Dianna and her staff travel worldwide to deliver focused speeches and training programs to address specific communication challenges and increase effectiveness in oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational communication.

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12 thoughts on “Presentation Skills: 6 Steps to Telling a Great Story Hollywood Style”

    1. You’re right, Dave, about stories. After addressing audiences for more than 2 decades, the stories are what people react to and remember best.

    1. An acting career? Well, then I’m SURE you have some great stories we’d love to hear about “behind the scenes” at the movies.

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