How often do you go to the grocery store? Once a week? Twice a week? Ever think about why you go so often? What if you couldn’t go for a month or two? How would your fruit look? Fruit is perishable, and so are average stories. Anyone can tell a story, but are your stories perishable? Do they last more than a day or two in the minds of your audience?
Urban legends become urban legends because they are shocking, memorable, and easy to retell. Have you heard a story that actually got your attention, one that you liked, but when you got the opportunity to retell it, you couldn’t? You could remember a few great details, but you got lost when you tried to remember the point or share it with someone. That is a perishable story. We hear them all of the time, in regular life and from most presenters.
The purpose of a story for presenters is to anchor a point in the hearts and minds of our audience. Early on in my career, I had not understood that to the deep level I do now. In my early days I thought that the use of story was to keep the presentation moving and make it entertaining. I did not see that the power of story was to plant a perspective-changing point in the subconscious mind of audience members.
To clarify, I was merely looking for stories that would entertain people in the room during my presentation on that day. That is perishable. That is like taking home fresh fruit and eating it that day. That isn’t bad, but there is one major problem. Real life does not happen during your presentation. It is cool to make people feel good and walk away from your presentation inspired. If you are an entertaining speaker, mission accomplished! However, I invite you to do this:
In order to do this, though, you must create them to help people three days after you present, when they are back out living life in the real world.
You may have heard me say this before, but it is well worth revisiting because it was such an aha in my career. As a part-time professional speaker who still had a day job, I searched constantly for that story that would launch my career. I kept looking high and low for that pre-made story that I could just capture and regurgitate to my audience. My obsession with finding that story was all consuming. One of my mentors, Dave Fitzgerald, noticed this and said, “Darren, stop trying to find the story that will launch your career. Instead, take the stories you have, and make them so good, someone will pay to hear them.”
Wow, that was a new perspective. If you are anything like I was in my early days, we hear stories from amazing speakers, and we secretly wish that something like the events in that story would happen to us so that we would have a great story to tell. No, you don’t! What I did not realize back then was that we were hearing a well-told story from a seasoned professional who had not only told that story for years, but they might also have been coached on how to tell it so well. If we had heard that same story in its original form, we probably would not have been nearly as captivated!
Too many presenters give up on great stories because they have no coach or process to follow. They make a classic mistake of not sitting down and working on the story so that every word matters. They do not focus on making sure the emotions of the characters are expressed or that the audience can see the emotional change.
The reason I joined the International Speech Contest was because of that advice from Dave. I was working my day job, speaking as often as possible, and marketing myself every waking moment in-between. The one thing I wasn’t doing was working on my speech and making it more memorable, starting with the most important part, my stories.
My challenge was that I just thought the story depicted exactly what happened. I just needed to witness or find more exciting stories. I did not know what to leave out or what to enhance to make it a great story. If it had not been for my coach, Mark Brown, my award-winning speech, “Ouch!” would not still be talked about today, well over a decade later.
People from around the world tell me that they have not watched it just once but multiple times and still watch it when they need some inspiration. Hearing that still blows me away. It makes all of the countless hours of studying, being coached, and tightening my speech well worth the effort. This was exactly what Dave noticed I wasn’t doing. I wasn’t taking the stories I had already told and making them great. I needed to make them more memorable. The reason I joined the speech contest was not to win, but to win more audiences and leave more memorable messages, thus creating more of a demand for me.
So, what is the process for creating better stories? Well, it’s hard to cover all of that in a single article, but here is an important process to understand and implement.
#1 ~ FIND THEM
Part of my big problem was where I was looking for stories. I was looking outside of me rather than inside of my own life. They are there if you know where to look and what to look for. Glenna Salisbury, CSP, CPAE, taught me to look for the transformational lessons and stories in my own life. List the life lessons you have learned, and reflect on exactly where you learned the lesson. There is a story there because we were not born knowing everything. All that you know had to be learned from some experience, a book, or some kind of mentor.
In my last article on storytelling, I mentioned looking through photo albums from your early life. Sit down with siblings, friends, or family members with the intent of finding great stories that are uniquely yours.
Here’s a picture from my own family album. That’s me, the blonde, excited to be feeding the chipmunks right from my hand. This picture reminds me of growing up and camping. We rarely ever stayed at a hotel due to a tight budget, but Mom and Dad made sure we went on camping vacations. It also reminds me of Mom and Dad’s doing what they could with what little they had. Knowing now what they provided for us on their small income is remarkable. When talking to my sister about growing up, I was reminded that there was a reason we had a weekly meal of franks and beans. It was very inexpensive. I was a finicky eater, and I loved those dinners! I don’t think my brother and sister were big fans of franks and beans night.
This one picture reminded me of so many ideas and stories from my youth. Take some time, and go through your family albums with a notebook or a note-taking app ready to capture ideas. If you are not fortunate enough to have family albums, go through someone else’s, and the conversations may just spark ideas for you.
There is gold in your own stories. At this point, that would mean simply capturing ideas. Later on you can decide which ones to develop and work on. When capturing ideas, you might even rate the stories with a level of emotional connection to the story (one star – five stars). The more it means to you, the deeper the place you will tell it from. It is crazy when I see some well-known authors who are known for building a business, but who never tell a story about that business they are known for. We want to hear their story. The audience wants to know your story.
#2 ~ FILET THEM
The next step in the process is to filet them. Cut away the story fat. We need to cut out the distracting details. Most stories have multiple points. In fact, some stories are good enough to make multiple points on the big stage. As Glenna said, my first time on stage was such a transitional moment in my life that it has multiple messages and uses. When I give a motivational speech, I use the story to make a point about motivation. When I am talking to presenters, I use my same Stitches story to make a point about being present. Same story, different points. Both stories are told with different details.
The challenge comes when presenters try to make multiple points. Part of the whole storytelling process for presenters is getting hyper-clear on the message you are trying to convey and then removing all of the extraneous details, details and facts that may be true but that dilute the power of your message. You have probably heard me say that when we coach people, the number one thing we emphasize is clarity, clarity, clarity!
You have to get clear on your message in order to know what to cut out. If we use this picture as an example, you can see it could make several points. If I wanted to choose a message of focus, I could use the fact that my brother and I are in the moment with the chipmunk, and the young girl, a friend of the family, is in the moment with the person taking the picture. If I chose to make the message about mentoring from my brother, then the young girl is a major distraction. It may be part of the story and part of the moment, but it is distracting to the point of the message. In picture terms, we need to crop it out. In storytelling terms, we need to cut it out. It may be interesting, but it is not relevant to the point of the message.
For me, it was helpful when my coaches had me tell my whole story live, record it, then transcribe it. They wanted me to get the entire big picture out on paper before I started to cut. It can be a mistake to start cutting before you get all the details out. The problem with this is you might leave out some great details that will be lost if trying to shortcut the process. You may create the story in less time, but it may then be perishable.
#3 ~ FORTIFY THEM
The next step is to enhance what is there. Once you filet the story, it is time for fortify it. How do you make your story bigger, more memorable, and capable of eliciting more emotion? Add the right details. This step may never be truly finished. As you grow in your speaking career, you will continue to learn the art of storytelling and have realizations on how to add some tiny details and delivery enhancements, like perfectly placed pauses that draw your audience in to anticipate the next line.
What can you do to make us feel your message or the emotion of the story? How can you bring us into the scene to picture it? How can you show the emotion of your characters and then, more importantly, show the change of emotion in a character?
One idea that Mark Brown, my coach, showed me was turning narration into dialogue. In my “Ouch!” speech, I told about telling my parents that I wanted to be a comedian, which was probably the last thing they ever expected me to say. When I brought version 1.0 of my speech to Mark, that simple story was told in narration. It was about a powerful moment in my life, but it fell flat due to the delivery and narration. It came to life when Mark had me turn it into dialogue and show my emotional reaction to my parents’ response.
Many presenters fall short on fortifying their stories. They may put a little effort in, but rarely enough. This step requires focus, feedback, and many revisions. You can’t tell a story in a vacuum. The listener’s hearing is just as important as what you actually say.
How often do you go to the grocery store? Whether you choose to be a professional speaker, have a message that matters, or are a speech contestant, you’ll find that anyone can tell a perishable story. You’ll also quickly realize that it requires a great deal of effort to take a story from perishable to permanent. The cool part is that once you make your stories good enough to be permanent, they can be used over and over again for years to come. Think beyond the room reaction, and shoot for real world results. Make your stories so good that they are not perishable, and serve your audience, days, weeks, and even years after you speak.
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