There are reasons why urban legends are urban legends. They are memorable and easy to retell. One of my favorite books, Made to Stick, is by Chip and Dan Heath. The cover of the book has a picture of a big piece of duct tape across it. It’s ugly, it’s memorable; and it makes the point. The big question is how sticky are your stories?
It is great to focus on making your stories vivid and emotional. Incorporating drama and humor makes stories sticky, too. But, let’s step back for a minute and ask how you and I as presenters use stories. What is the purpose of the story for a presenter? After all, we are not trying to create urban legends; we are trying to inspire, motivate, and educate our audience. We are trying to leave them with a new perspective.
In the past twenty years, the most brilliant teaching wisdom I’ve heard in the speaking world came from fellow World Champion Speaker, Craig Valentine. He said that we need to create a Foundational Phrase, a memorable, rhythmic phrase of ten words or fewer that is the essence of your message.
Cliché phrases are so commonplace (like urban legends) that they will not be memorable to your audience. Even worse, they will not be tied to you as your original thoughts. When we are on stage, we are the expert. Become an expert. Better yet, become an expert that people love and remember. Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE, says that we should speak to be remembered and repeated.
One huge mistake I see in the speaking world, whether it is from a professional speaker or from someone in a speech contest, is the lack of an original foundational phrase. Most people will not sit down and take the time to create one. This is a big mistake. If you care about your message and your audience, make the time. It also helps to get a writing buddy to brainstorm with. Better yet,
“Don’t just take the time; make the time!”
Even the United States government uses this idea. (I’m not sure if they heard Craig speak before or not.) In the hopes of enlisting the public’s help to prevent terrorism, they created this phrase: “If you see something, say something.” Think about it. Do you think it was just someone’s quick idea? Or do you think they sat down and took the time to brainstorm with a team of people to develop that phrase? If the government sees the importance of it, shouldn’t you?
Coming up with a sticky foundational phrase does not always happen in one sitting. Sometimes it has to evolve over time. It may pop out of your mouth unexpectedly, and that is a great reason to always record yourself so that you can capture it when it does. It may also come from an audience member. I don’t know when I first said the words, “Stage time, stage time, stage time.” I do remember that it got repeated. I know it was one of my foundational phrases long before I knew what a foundational phrase was!
One of my clients brought me to speak at a conference, and one of the words in their theme was “resolve.” I piggybacked on that and used it in the repetitive refrain of my keynote: “Resolve to evolve.” The client loved it. In fact, they brought me back a few years later and wanted me to use that same phrase because it applied to the current challenges the company was facing. Here is the key though: they loved and remembered it!
I will say that since I picked up that idea from Craig, I have run with it and created many more. Each one of them reinforces a particular point. Another one of my foundational phrases relates to people who are trying to memorize their speeches. Looking back at some of my own videos from early on in my career, I could see that I was in my head thinking of what I was going to say next. I was not fully present with my audience. Two phrases evolved from this realization. One is,
The other is,
One of the cool things for presenters is that our audiences love those phrases. They are short and memorable, and they encapsulate the learning. With the added bonus of technology, they are also tweetable. If our government does it, why wouldn’t you? Does your message matter? Do you want to be remembered? As presenters, it is not our job to create urban legends. Schedule time to create foundational phrases in order to make each story’s message memorable. Sticky stories are important but making your message memorable matters more.
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