November 12, 2009

When to Tell A Story and What Story to Tell

©Doug Stevenson 2009 – All Rights Reserved

I recently gave the luncheon keynote speech for a state association. In the program that I presented, Emotional Eloquence, I usually tell three stories, which I call: The Oscar Story, The Chicago CEO Story and the Dagger Lady Story.

Because I was speaking after lunch, I knew I needed to keep the energy high and work in a little more interaction.  I decided to take out the Dagger Lady Story and replace it with my Airport Story, because the Airport Story is funnier.

Have you considered not only what stories to tell, but also when to tell them? When you’re designing a presentation, consider the time of day, the mood of the audience and the content being presented. Use strategically chosen stories to manage the energy of your audience while continuing to inform and influence. Certain stories are great openers and others are great closers. Stories that are more serious and emotional belong in the middle third of a presentation.

Don’t just tell a story for the sake of telling a story. Storytelling in business is serious business.  Stories are strategic tools. My Airport Story, which I’ve been telling for over 13 years, is a story that I use to create some fun and laughter, while at the same time making a very serious point about change. I know exactly when and how to use it.

My Dagger Lady Story, on the other hand, is more serious and contains some tender emotion. It makes a very powerful point about standing in your power as a speaker. When I use this story in a speech, I usually place it in the middle of my speech.  My Oscar Story is a great opener because it lays the foundation for the main point of that speech. I only do about 30 to 60 seconds of material before I’m into my Oscar Story.

Many of my students are under the impression that all of their stories need to be funny, as if stories are a substitute for jokes. They are not. If that were the case, all movies would be funny movies. People like funny stories, but they also like serious ones.  Stories can do many things. They can teach, inspire, and entertain. They can make complex ideas easy to understand. They can take an intangible concept, like change, and make it tangible and real.

In an hour keynote, I suggest that you use a couple of light and funny stories, because humor is essential in every presentation. I also suggest that you craft one or two stories that are more serious and emotional. These stories of real life challenges reflect the reality that people face every day. They also show that you are a serious speaker who takes your subject seriously.

Regarding story placement, here is one lesson that I have learned the hard way:  Don’t start your presentation with your funniest or most dramatic story. Place your best material in the last two thirds of your speech.  The reason for this is simple: People need some time to warm up to you and your subject. They need to get to know you. In the first three minutes, they’re getting used to your style, your rhythm, and your personality. Once they have accepted you, you can take them somewhere a little more challenging.

Your best stories are going to be personal stories. They tell the story of something that happened to you where you learned a lesson. Find the story that fits the lesson you want to teach in your presentation. Then the question is, when do you tell it?

One option is to start your presentation with a statement or a question that engages the audience’s attention. You can use that statement to lay the foundation for your first point. Then, use a story to illustrate that point. If it’s your first story, make sure it’s a “feel good” story.  If it’s funny, all the better!  It does not necessarily have to be funny, though, as long as it is warm and sincere.

Another possibility is to create a clever 30 to 60 second bridge leading into your first story. In my Emotional Eloquence keynote, I open with a bridge leading up to my Oscar Story. Oscar was a great leader and I use his story to illustrate inspiring leadership.  My first 30 to 60 seconds is spent talking about how I love my job because I get to meet some great people in great companies.  By talking about meeting nice people, I’ve created an opening that is positive, upbeat and conversational. So to make my segue into the Oscar Story, all I have to say is, “One of those great people was named Oscar.” That’s it. Within 60 seconds I’m into my opening story.

My Chicago CEO Story is about something more serious, so I place it in the middle of my speech. By then I’ve earned the right to be more challenging. I would never put it up front because it’s too confrontational. I’ve learned that I need to get them laughing and feeling good before I present anything that strong.

Take a look at your stories and place them into one of these three categories:

  • Funny and light – get a laugh and make a point
  • Cerebral and instructional – make sense and make a point
  • Serious and emotional – make them feel and make a point; might be challenging

Now, design your speech as if it were a roller coaster ride. Take them up and down, to the left, and then up and down and to the right, and so forth.

Use your stories strategically. They are powerful communication tools. As a matter of fact, they are the most powerful communication tools in your tool belt. Remember, storytelling in business is serious business.


Doug Stevenson, president of Story Theater International, is a storytelling in business expert. He is the creator of The Story Theater Method and the author of the book, Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method.

His programs include: Get Out of Your Own Way – A Rock and Roll Keynote; Storytelling in Business is Serious Business – Engage, Influence and Sell; Emotional Eloquence – The Lost Language of Leadership and; It Was A Dark and Stormy Sales Presentation – The Serious Business of Selling with Stories.

His speaking, training and executive coaching clients include Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Lockheed Martin, Oracle, Bristol Myers Squibb, Amgen, Volkswagen, Century 21, The Department of Defense, The National Education Association and many more.

His 10 CD – How to Write and Deliver a Dynamite Speech audio learning system is a workshop in a box. It contains an 80-page follow along workbook. Watch the preview video at:

Doug can be reached at 1-800-573-6196 or 1-719-573-6195. Learn more about the Story Theater Method, purchase the book or Story Theater audio six pack, and sign-up for the free Story Theater newsletter at:

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