If you read nearly any presentation blog or public speaking article published in the past few years, you’ll hear some expert stating you need to become a storyteller. I’ve even seen a shift in speakers now calling themselves storytellers and presentation coaches now training storytelling. Storytelling is a great presentation technique when used properly, but most “expert storytellers” are natural storytellers and do not understand how to teach others what comes so easily to themselves. Also, the really good storytellers don’t let you in on a big secret because they want you to buy their course or workshop and think it is easy. Storytelling is hard and you need to beware the storytelling trap!
While I fully support and encourage my clients and SpeakU students to use stories during their presentations, using stories must be strategic. Stories humanize you and allow your audience to empathize with your information, which is the connection you seek. Stories also resonate deeper in the minds of your listeners much more than data alone can. People remember stories in much greater detail and for longer periods of time than data or lectures alone. These are all significant benefits to any speaker, especially a technical professional like many of my clients.
Because the power stories can bring to a presentation, and with it being one of the latest presentation industry buzzwords, it pushes speakers into one of these traps.
4 Storytelling Traps to Avoid when Presenting
- Speakers don’t practice their story – Have you ever heard a presenter tell an engaging, emotional and heartful story and walk away wondering what the point of the story was and why was the speaker sharing it anyway? I’m sure you have and I saw a well-paid keynote speaker tell a gut-wrenching story about overcoming tragedy and he rambled so much that he ran out of time. Luckily, the master of ceremonies did a quick recap on why the conference wanted to share the keynote’s story. Many audience members walked out of the ballroom saying that didn’t get it until the MC explained the connection.
This keynote made one huge mistake using his story that I see all too often. He didn’t practice his story because he lived it and knew it. He took 95% of his allotted time sharing his story and he forgot to wrap it up because he was emotionally drained at the end. When telling his friends the same story, he doesn’t need to share the moral of the story, but to an audience that doesn’t know him, he needs to cover it. He got paid to share his insights, not his story.
- Presenter’s stories overtake the presentation – Many presenters use too many stories or overshare one long story like the example above and their point gets completely lost, even when they share it. A good storyteller can play out an emotional story so well that the audience can visualize it like watching a movie, but if the speaker does not connect the dots for the audience, everyone thinks it is just a good story with no real meaning. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for entertaining stories like when talking with friends, sitting around the campfire, and when watching a movie. Presentations are different and you need to communicate your message and use the story to reinforce that message and its importance. The story itself is not the message.
You will see what I mean about a story reinforcing a message or being useless by observing sermons. Nearly every pastor will use a story from the Bible to reinforce his/her message. When doing so, the pastor tells you a message, shares a biblical passage, potentially adds a related modern day story, and then reinforces the message. If the pastor only shares the story, it may be entertaining, but it won’t sink in and educate the parishioners (the audience).
- Great storytellers practice in excruciating detail – Most great storytellers have a natural knack for storytelling and the end up telling the same story over and over. (That’s the secret they’re not telling you!) I learned a lot about simplification and engaging audiences by presenting nearly the same information over 1,000 times during my 5+ years working at the zoo. I refined my delivery and wording every time as I saw what worked and what didn’t. This evolution of the message also kept me sane. Most presenters are not comfortable sharing stories, so they become apprehensive and don’t practice the stories at all, so the audience hears it for the first time ever. During your practices and rehearsals, you will naturally refine what you say and find better ways to tell your message each time you say it. Storytelling works just the same and the best storytellers have said the same story hundreds of times and looked at each word they say in detail to ensure their success.
- Storytelling is not a Theatrical Monolog – I struggle with actors turned presentation coaches because public speaking is not acting and storytelling is not a monolog. As I just mentioned, you need to practice your presentation to become comfortable with what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. You want your words to naturally evolve and you adapt them to your audience instead of memorizing a script. An audience can tell when a presenter memorizes what they will say because it does not look and sound natural. Storytelling should be natural and it will organically change each time a presenter shares it. (Hence why oral history is not completely accurate.) When preparing for your presentation and practicing telling your story, don’t think of it as a play because you’re not an actor pretending to be a character and you’re not on a stage at the theater overemoting everything. Hopefully, that will less any stage fright because presentations, even when telling a story, is just a conversation.
Again, stories are amazing vehicles to share your message and I always encourage presenters to use them. Remember to practice them so you’re comfortable sharing your stories naturally without memorizing them. Also, remember to keep your message up front and leave enough time to recap your thoughts so your stories do not overpower your message.
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