Monday, July 28, 2014

The Role of Storytelling in Public Speaking

Today's Special Guest Blogger is Dr. Sharon Bebout Carr, one of the countries foremost authorities on Storytelling and Performance. Please visit her Facebook page at 

The Role of Storytelling in Public Speaking
By Dr. Sharon Bebout Carr

As speakers, we are always looking for an edge.  We browbeat our audience with statistical data, because we know that statistics can sound impressive and make it look like we really did our research.  We put together power point presentations because we know that visual reinforcement helps audiences remember and process our information.  We dress professionally to introduce ourselves through signs as serious and competent communicators.  We practice enunciation and pronunciation so that we will be more easily understood.   The list goes on and on.  All of these strategies have their place and can help to promote a speaker’s success.  But if I had to choose one strategy that I would incorporate in every speech because of its multiplicity of benefits, it would be storytelling.

Storytelling is a powerful public speaking tool for three important reasons:  it provides compelling support for claims, because it humanizes your message and utilizes specificity; it helps establish a rapport between you and the audience because it reveals something important about you; and it invites your audience to make associations between your topic and their own past experiences.  To illustrate these claims, I would like for you to consider three possible introductions to a speech about the hazards inherent in coal mining.

Introduction #1:  Despite the continued improvements to coal mining safety, coal mining remains one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.  As a matter of fact, people still die in mining accidents with astonishing frequency.

Introduction #2:  Many of you sitting in the audience today may know someone who works in a dangerous profession.  I know I do.  I am a coal miner’s daughter.

Introduction #3   Johnny was a coal miner.  One night he was working, shoveling coal onto a belt and something went wrong, so he turned off the belt to do some maintenance.  Another miner came along, who didn’t know why the belt was off and turned it back on.  Johnny was caught in the belt and killed.  He was 20 years old.   He was my baby brother.  His is only one of the stories behind the headlines about mining accidents and the quest for mining safety.

I think all of the above introductions can capture an audience’s attention, but the last one is the most likely to keep them involved.  The first introduction lacks detail.  It doesn’t ask your audience to do any of the work.  It doesn’t say anything about your connection to your topic. 

The second introduction is harder to dismiss, because it asks the audience to think about people they know who are in harm’s way and establishes your connection to the topic.

The third introduction, however, has the most universal appeal.  First of all, a person’s story causes us to form associations with our own experiences.   To tell a story is to give a human face to experience.  It appeals to us on an emotional, as well as an intellectual level.  That immediately makes us, as audience members, more willing to walk across the bridge into a new experience.  Your audience may not have any connection to coal mining, but they have a connection to you, as a particular human being standing in front of them.  They also have a connection to the universals that reside within a specific relating of experience.  They may not know coal miners, but they know people that matter to them, that have names and places in their lives. 

Stories are powerful.  They are full of details.  They connect us to the emotional underpinnings of ideas.  They open doors to our own stories and cause us to interact more fully with what might otherwise be an alien experience.

Remember that stories are at the root of the human experience.  They are how we learn, they are how we remember, they are how we make meaning of our lives.  I can turn away from statistics—they do not move me.  I can become bored with power point presentations that lack creativity.  I may even distrust the “polished” sounds of rehearsed speech.  But I will always listen to a story, no matter how poorly told, because it calls to other stories inside of me.

The best speakers know that a speech is not a presentation or a transaction, but an interaction.  Stories call to other stories, and that opens the door to participation and understanding. 

For more information about Dr. Carr's Consulting and Storytelling workshops visit her Facebook page at: