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