Friday, March 29, 2013

Why Stories Work

As I mentioned yesterday, stories are a public speaker's best friend. Why? Because they are interesting, understandable and memorable. And as an added bonus, they take a little time to tell. So when you have 50 minutes to fill, your "facts and figures" only go so far--It takes about 5 seconds to cite a statistic. What are you going to say for the remaining 49 minutes and 55 seconds? Tell stories, that's what. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start with interesting.

Stories are interesting. Yes, I know, we've all heard our share of boring stories, i.e., stories told poorly, but stories grab our attention. If I start to tell you the story of little Bobby who suffered terribly with a stuttering problem and his typical day at school, you will find it hard not to pay attention. Because once we start a story, the listener wants to know what happens to the subject of the story. What is little Bobby's day like? Do the kids taunt him and act cruelly, or do they all rally around him and support him in his simple struggle to communicate? Once you begin a story, we just naturally want to know where it goes and how it turns out. It is in this sense that I say stories are inherently interesting. They capture our attention and hold it, as long as we tell the story reasonably well.

Stories are also understandable. When you have to teach people, use stories that exemplify your concept, topic, or purpose. One of the things I try to teach my  students when we cover informative speaking is the need for your audience to understand what the hell you are talking about. After all, when you know a lot about a topic, it's easy to go over the learner's head with jargon and knowledge you assume your audience has, but doesn't. In short, you teach at a too advanced level and "lose" your audience. In trying to get this point across I always tell them the story of a former student's "Birth of a Star" speech.

A young man whose intelligence far exceeded my own once delivered a speech on how a star is formed, or "born" if you will. There were two problems with the speech though. First it was 13 minutes long (twice as long as the assignment called for). But the bigger problem was that after 13 minutes no one in the audience had any clue how a star was formed! He knew, I am sure. But he was so far over our heads with his vocabulary and assumed knowledge that we had no idea what he was talking about. He was interesting for sure, as he was teaching like his hair was on fire, with the enthusiasm of a true believer, with PowerPoint going full blast and multi-colored diagrams on the board...oh yeah, he was interesting. But understandable? not even close. He took it for granted that his audience knew all about black holes and red stars and quarks and positively charged neutrons--or whatever the hell he said up there. And we didn't.

I tell this story to make a point for my students--don't overestimate the knowledge level of the audience. And when combined with a few other examples, they "get it". I rarely see speeches like that where the student goes over our heads because they understand the STORY of the guy with the birth of a star speech. If an audience can understand the story, they can also understand the concept the story is exemplifying.

Finally, stories are memorable. When all is said and done, my students remember the stories I tell in class. Do they remember the definitions, brief examples, a or statistics I provide? Sadly, according to Final Exam results, much less so. But at the end of the semester--and sometimes years later when I run into them at the mall or at a parade or something--they remember the story about the little kid who stuttered and that guy who gave the speech about stars that nobody understood.

It's not just me though. stories are how culture is recorded and passed from generation to generation. Writing is a relatively new development in the history of humanity, but we have stories that go back thousands of years before writing was invented. The stories of the Bible for instance, all happened before they were written down. The stories were told from one generation to the next for years and years.

In oral cultures they have no written records, yet they have complex value systems and thousands of years of cultural history, all in the form of stories. People remember stories.

So there you have it. Stories are interesting, understandable, and memorable. That's why they're great tools for public speakers. However, that's just the start of why stories are your friend. In my next blog entry I will explain how stories make you speak better. That's right. Stories make you DELIVER your message better and I'll explain how and why when we meet again.

Until then, be well and speak well.

And thanks for reading!

For more information on Dan Leyes and his work with Semiosphere Consulting click here