Storytelling to Empower Your Speeches and Presentations

Book with open pages and the word 'Storytelling' above it.

Storytelling is a powerful tool to use in speeches and presentations. From early childhood, we develop an appreciation for stories and the ideas they communicate. Including storytelling in your speeches and presentations will enable you to convey your message in an entertaining, memorable and indirect way. People will remember good stories and their lessons long after they have forgotten the finer details of a speech or presentation.

Through storytelling, you bring your message into reality and give it an emotional and/or humorous dimension. If you simply tell your listeners to take an action without a good story to support your message, you won’t be as successful in motivating them.

For example, if a company leader is speaking about the need for change at his organisation, storytelling about a company that didn’t change and failed as a result can be effective. In addition, the leader could include storytelling about a business that succeeded because it was able to change.

Storytelling using personal stories from your life is often the best way to promote your ideas. These stories could be something that happened in your childhood, your work, your family life, your travels, or anything else you have seen or heard. This is why it’s a good idea to write down the interesting stories you hear or experience. If you don’t record these stories, it can be challenging to find the right one when you want to include storytelling in your speech or presentation. If you can’t find a personal story that supports your premise, there is usually a relevant story to be found — but you have to look for it.

Get Storytelling Ideas from What You Hear or Read

A famous and influential speech was the result of a story heard by Russell Conwell while travelling in the Middle East in the 1800s.

The speech based on the story was so popular that Russell Conwell delivered it over 6,000 times around the United States. The money he earned from it was used to fund philanthropic causes, including the establishment of Temple University in Philadelphia, which now has over 40,000 students on nine campuses around the world — a great example of the power of storytelling!

You can read the full speech at American Rhetoric.

Storytelling from Your Life

An anecdote is a short amusing or interesting story about a real person or event. If you pay attention, you can find plenty of anecdotes from your life that you can eventually use for storytelling when speaking.

David Brooks, who won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in the early 1990s, is a proponent of storytelling in speeches and presentations. One example he uses when discussing the changing world of technology is about his son. When he asked his then four-year-old son how to spell his name, the son answered: ‘D‒A‒N‒N‒Y Enter.’ It’s a very short anecdote that helps make a point about the effect of technology on our lives.

Like David Brooks, I have been able to find my own story  that shows how technology is changing our lives. One day my son was ill at home from primary school. He was spending quite a bit of time playing games on an iPad. Later in the day he was reading a book and I asked him to do a small task. His answer was ‘Wait. I need to pause my book.’ Humorous gems like these appear to us every day, but we need to look out for these stories, and write them down to save them in a storytelling ‘toolkit’.

Steve Jobs was admired for storytelling in his thought-provoking speeches, which he meticulously prepared and rehearsed. In his Stanford Commencement Address in 2005, storytelling from his life supported his message. Read the full speech to see how Jobs applied storytelling in his Stanford Commencement Address.

After ending one of his stories, Steve Jobs put the focus on the audience and offered advice and encouragement based on his experience. This highlights the point that your storytelling should not only focus on you, but get your audience involved by showing how the lessons you have learned can help them as well. This might include asking questions, offering friendly advice or giving a call to action.

So when you are preparing for your next presentation, ask yourself: ‘What story, or stories, from my life will support my message?’ This doesn’t always have to be something that personally involved you. It can also be something you heard or something you read that had an impact on you. If storytelling ideas don’t come to mind, give yourself a few days to think about it — if you have enough time to do this.

For storytelling in future speeches and presentations, save the stories that you think could be relevant to what you speak about. You can collect interesting stories you read in publications, bookmark them in your web browser, and jot down your stories in a dedicated story journal.

Michael Gladkoff


Speechwriting: Why Write Your Speech or Presentation?


When I discuss my speechwriting experience with some of the businesspeople I meet, they are surprised that anyone would pay someone for speechwriting services. Common questions include:

  • Why would a person pay for speechwriting services?
  • How can you provide speechwriting if you are not an expert in the field?
  • Is it ethical to have a speech written by a professional speechwriter?

I have also met people who were amazed when they learn that most executive and politicians don’t write their own speeches. For example, Obama didn’t write his own speeches and almost always read them from a teleprompter. In fact, he would often struggle when the teleprompter stopped working or when speaking without a script (as in this video).

When asked in advance to speak, speechwriting is the last thing on the mind of many. They have mixed feelings — they might look forward to the possibility of expressing their message, but they may also feel anxious about the best way to present it. An easy way to avoid speechwriting is to ‘wing it’ by having a general idea of what to say, creating an outline and then practising the speech a few times before the event. It can work for an experienced and confident speaker, but usually the result would have been much better if they had taken the time to write a speech.

If we look at the great speeches in history, they were all written in advance — and many times professional speechwriter was involved in the speechwriting. It simply isn’t possible to perfect your language without going through the speechwriting process. A good speech requires research to find and choose the appropriate elements, such as stories, humour and facts. It also requires creativity in selecting the best words to convey the message. This includes redrafting your speech until it feels right.

The Myth That Words Don’t Count

The false belief that the words have little importance in speeches and presentations has been propagated by an unfortunate myth. Some leadership consultants repeat it without knowing its source and what its author was really saying about communication.

In the late 1960s, psychology professor Albert Mehrabian wrote that:

  • 7% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken
  • 38% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is the way that the words are said
  • 55% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression.[1],[2]

This has been misinterpreted over the years and is incorrectly believed to mean that in any spoken communication, including speeches and presentations:

  • 7% of meaning is verbal (words)
  • 38% of meaning is vocal (how the words are said)
  • 55% of meaning is in facial expression.

What Mehrabian was really writing about was the inconsistency in messages pertaining to feelings and attitudes in one-on-one communication. For example, if you see an acquaintance who says he is glad to see you, but he is frowning, 55 percent of the meaning you interpret is from his facial expression. In this case you would doubt that the person is glad to see you.

In explaining his research, Mehrabian wrote:

Please remember that all my findings on inconsistent or redundant communications dealt with communications of feelings and attitudes. This is the realm within which they are applicable. Clearly, it is absurd to imply or suggest that the verbal portion of all communication constitutes only 7% of the message. Suppose I want to tell you that the eraser you are looking for is in the second right-hand drawer of my desk in my office. How could anyone contend that verbal part is only 7% of this message? Instead, and more accurately, the verbal part is nearly 100% of the message.[3]

He later stated:

Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.[4]

The idea that words make up only seven per cent of our messages was never meant to be applied to public speaking. Unfortunately, it has gained popularity in some circles — including Toastmasters and Neuro‒Linguistic Programming (NLP) — so you will find people who believe words don’t matter very much — so speechwriting must not be important. They incorrectly think that body language and vocal and facial expressions are the keys to conveying their message, since the words only count for seven per cent of its meaning.

But even if you still believe that words have little importance, let’s look at speechwriting from a historical perspective. When you consider the well-known speeches delivered by leaders throughout history, do you believe that the words are unimportant? Probably not. Although speakers such as Martin Luther King (I Have a Dream) and Winston Churchill (We Shall Fight on the Beaches) had distinctive voices and knew how to use them, it would be ridiculous to say that the content of their monumental speeches only accounted for seven per cent of the meaning and that speechwriting was not a major factor in the impact of these speeches.

The power of words has been proven beyond speechwriting. Many years ago, I worked in market research and learned how important it was to read interview questions accurately from the survey script. This is because market research professionals know that changing one word or phrase to another word, which has the same or very similar meaning, can significantly influence survey responses. As the Pew Research Center explains:

The choice of words and phrases in a question is critical in expressing the meaning and intent of the question to the respondent and ensuring that all respondents interpret the question the same way. Even small wording differences can substantially affect the answers people provide.

…For example, in a 2005 Pew Research survey, 51% of respondents said they favored ‘making it legal for doctors to give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives,’ but only 44% said they favored ‘making it legal for doctors to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide.’

Although both versions of the question are asking about the same thing, the reaction of respondents was different. In another example, respondents have reacted differently to questions using the word ‘welfare’ as opposed to the more generic ‘assistance to the poor.’ Several experiments have shown that there is much greater public support for expanding ‘assistance to the poor’ than for expanding ‘welfare.’[5]

If such minor wording changes in market research surveys can influence the way people feel and respond, then we need to think very carefully about the thousands of words we use in our speeches and presentations. Speechwriting is the process of choosing and organising these words that have a major impact on how people feel and respond.

Speechwriting Enables You to Refine Your Ideas and Apply Your Research

The speechwriting process includes researching, developing and organising supporting material, creating a structure and using words for the most powerful effect. These basic elements that make a successful speech can be combined to create the desired outcome when you plan and write your presentation. The act of speechwriting can spark creativity to produce an impressive result.

Delivering a speech from an outline or having a general idea of what you want to say will not create the same outcome. Doing the research and thinking it through as part of the speechwriting process is the only way to find and organise the elements that make a powerful speech or presentation.

Even if you are an expert in the subject matter, speechwriting is still important. Writing only the opening and conclusion of your presentation, and practising and becoming familiar with these sections can greatly enhance your impact. Then you can deliver the body of the presentation from an outline if you are comfortable doing so.

Speechwriting Prevents Mistakes and Misinterpretations

Politicians, executives and other high-profile leaders often get into trouble by saying the wrong thing. The typical defence is that the statement was ‘taken out of context’ and ‘that’s not what the speaker meant’. Many times these utterances are in interviews and other situations where the person is asked a question. But you can avoid embarrassment when delivering a speech or presentation by planning ahead and writing down what you want to say. Being prepared will reduce the chance of making a statement that can cause problems and lower your credibility as a speaker.

Yes, there will be times when you are called upon to speak without having time to prepare. But if you do have time, don’t risk making mistakes by failing to prepare, which includes planning, researching, writing and redrafting.

Speechwriting Helps You Stand Apart from Other Speakers

The speaker who has taken the time for speechwriting, or who has collaborated with a professional speechwriter, and who has practised it will be more confident than the speaker who hasn’t. When you prepare, you can include techniques that gain attention, build rapport, persuade and make your messages memorable. As a result, you will stand out as a leader and increase your influence.

Michael Gladkoff

[1] Mehrabian, A & Ferris, S 1967, ‘Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels’, Journal of Consulting Psychology, Volume 31, Issue 3, pp. 248–252.

[2] Mehrabian, A & Wiener, M 1967, ‘Decoding of Inconsistent Communications’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp. 109–114.

[3] Lapakko, D 2007, ‘Communication is 93% Nonverbal: An Urban Legend Proliferates’, Communication and Theater Association of Minnesota Journal, Volume 34, p. 5.

[4] From Mehrabian’s website:


Five Common Public Speaking Myths

Public speaking myths abound. Over the years I have repeatedly heard and read a number of myths about public speaking. Let’s look at five common myths about public speaking that can hinder the development of speaking and presenting skills if they are believed and followed.

Woman public speaking with flip chart.

Public speaking myth number one: ‘Your words are not that important — it’s your voice and facial expression that communicate most of your message when speaking in public.’

This myth is a result of misinterpretation of research conducted by Albert Mehrabian in the late 1960s. From his studies, he claimed that in interpersonal communication:

  • 7% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken
  • 38% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is the way that the words are said
  • 55% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression.

The problem is that these numbers were not meant to be applied to public speaking but to one-to-one communication of feelings and attitudes. For example, if you meet a friend and she tells you that she is having an excellent day, but she is frowning and her voice sounds sad, you won’t believe that she is happy because the words are not congruent with the vocal and facial expressions.

In other situations, including public speaking, your words are crucial for communicating your message. If your words only accounted for 7% of your message in general, you would not be able to listen to a radio program and understand it. More ridiculously, you would never have to learn a new language because you could communicate 93% of your messages through your voice and facial expressions no matter where you travelled in the world.

In explaining his research, Mehrabian wrote:

‘Please remember that all my findings on inconsistent or redundant communications dealt with communications of feelings and attitudes. This is the realm within which they are applicable. Clearly, it is absurd to imply or suggest that the verbal portion of all communication constitutes only 7% of the message. Suppose I want to tell you that the eraser you are looking for is in the second right-hand drawer of my desk in my office. How could anyone contend that verbal part is only 7% of this message. Instead, and more accurately, the verbal part is nearly 100% of the message.’

In the early 2000s, addressing the controversy raised by his research, Albert Mehrabian wrote:

‘I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately, the field of self-styled “corporate image consultants” or “leadership consultants” has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise.’

Despite these statements from the author of the research, you still find public speaking ‘experts’ who say words are not that important.

You can read more about this topic in Communication is 93% Nonverbal: An Urban Legend Proliferates.

Public speaking myth number two: ‘You don’t need to prepare too much if you know the subject matter already.’

Many times I have heard ‘I know my subject matter very well, so I can just get up and present it without preparing for public speaking situations’. The problem with this statement is that having the knowledge does not necessarily mean you can present it effectively without thought, planning and preparation.  How many times have you seen experts ramble on, repeat themselves and lack impact due to a poorly planned presentation?

Taking the time to prepare for your presentation will help you organise your thoughts, conduct any additional research needed, and craft powerful phrases that are more likely to be remembered. If you don’t write a full script and memorise it, you could write a strong opening and conclusion and an outline for the body of your presentation. This will ensure you open and close effectively and present your topic in logical manner.


Public speaking myth number 3: ‘Speak fast to be a dynamic speaker and keep people interested.’

It’s good to be enthusiastic and passionate about your topic. However, this often leads to poor public speaking performance when the mouth tries to keep up with the mind. By slowing down, your audience will be able to absorb your message and remember it.

If we look at many of the great speeches in history, that have made a strong and lasting impact, they were delivered at a moderate to slow rate. For example, Dr Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and Ronald Reagan’s Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate (‘Tear down this wall’) were delivered at a rate of around 100 words per minute.  As a speechwriter, I aim for a maximum of 125 words per minute when writing for clients.

Besides slowing down your overall speaking rate, pausing when making important points or transitioning to a new topic will help your audience follow you throughout your speech or presentation.

Public speaking myth number 4: ‘Don’t quote other people in your speeches and presentations, but be quotable.’

I started hearing the idea that you shouldn’t quote others in speeches and presentations a few years ago. The idea is to create your own quotable content instead of quoting others. The problem with this idea is that using the right quote at the right time can be highly effective in many public speaking situations. Quoting respected authorities, who agree with your message, will strengthen your position.

Some of the most admired speakers from the present and past — political, motivational and business — have quoted others in their speeches and presentations. A few examples are Earl Nightingale, Martin Luther King Jr, John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Al Gore, Brian Tracy and Wayne Dyer.  All of these top speakers used quotations in their speeches and presentations. One of my favourite examples of using quotations effectively is Earl Nightingale. See how he used quotations in his best-selling motivational program The Strangest Secret.

 Public speaking myth number 5: ‘Great public speakers are born, not made.’

A big part of my development as a speechwriter and speaker has been my involvement in Toastmasters International. I originally joined Toastmasters in the mid-1980s. Over the years I have watched and helped speakers go from being terrified on stage to becoming masters of public speaking.

If you are in extrovert, introvert, or somewhere in between, you can boost your public speaking skills through practice and feedback. If Toastmasters isn’t for you, one approach to improving your public speaking is videoing your speeches and presentations. A video recording doesn’t lie, so you will see all the annoying, distracting and ineffective things you might be doing while speaking.

Michael Gladkoff

About the author: Michael Gladkoff is a speechwriter, author, speaker and trainer based in Melbourne, Australia. His next Speech Power workshop will be held in Melbourne on 17 November, 2016.