Call it Public Storytelling

Free-Range Thinking | June 2002

Take the dread out of public speaking and put new life into your presentations by giving the audience what it’s waiting for: stories.

Jane Preyer knows something about performing under pressure. In her twenties, she played tennis professionally and once advanced as far as the round of sixteen at Wimbledon. Given a choice, however, between playing in a grand slam tournament before several thousand people and playing after-dinner speaker for fifty, Jane would lace up her Nikes every time.

On a recent evening in South Carolina, however, Jane did not have that choice. The board of directors of Environmental Defense, a national advocacy group with offices across the country (including nearby Raleigh where Jane serves as director) was waiting for her. Dinner at the Charleston Aquarium had just concluded, and now this august assemblage (read: major donors) was eager to hear how their contributions were paying dividends.

Jane surveyed the trustees warily. They had just consumed a large meal, the room was dark, and the backdrop for her talk was a large glass window behind which fish swam lazily back and forth. If ever the express train to dreamland was ready to leave the station, it was now. Jane scanned her notes, thought ruefully about her decision to “try something different,” and began.

Earlier that day, Jane had no thought of abandoning the usual format for her speech. She had been given a straightforward assignment – summarize the organization’s accomplishments in the region – and she was proceeding in the usual manner. After identifying four categories in which significant progress had been made (improving air quality, cracking down on pollution from hog farms, preserving forests, and protecting ocean resources), she had assembled a list of impressive facts and figures to substantiate each claim.

Without question, Jane had good news to report, and her native Carolinian accent would let her do so with more than a little charm. There was only one problem: the speech was adding up to an eye-glazing yawner on a par with televised chess. Even though Jane had thoughtfully parsed her task and compiled enough data to make her case, the presentation had no life. And she knew it.

So Jane asked me for advice, and I gave her the best piece I have: tell stories. People look for stories to give meaning to the information thrown at them each day, and whether they consciously knew it or not, Jane’s audience at the aquarium would be doing just that. I asked her to take another look at her four categories to see if there were any stories that could help her introduce each one.

At first, Jane looked at me like I was speaking Chinese, and she reflexively clutched her neatly typed lists of bullet points. So I restated the question: “Is there any way you can personalize these issues,” I asked, “ground them in the day-to-day so the audience can get a handle on them?” She thought for a while and said that her team’s air quality work was helping to reduce asthma, a problem that strongly affected children. I asked if she knew any kids who had asthma, and that’s when a look of recognition flashed across her face. “Preyer Fountain,” she said. “My nephew.”

Five year-old Preyer Fountain is a college basketball fanatic who likes to wear the baggy powder-blue shorts of his Tarheel heroes. When the air in his home town of Raleigh turns bad, Preyer’s asthma gives him coughing fits that often end up in frantic trips to a hospital emergency room. As Jane told me these things, I could see the creases of worry in her face, reflections of her deep feelings for her nephew. But I could also see that Jane recognized the relevance of Preyer’s story. By recounting it for the board, she could make the issue of air pollution personal with real, human stakes. Her audience would inevitably be drawn in, and then she could present the larger picture, serving up the hard data that quantified Environmental Defense’s progress on this issue.

Jane started rewriting her speech, introducing each category with a story. Before detailing her team’s work preserving forests, she would talk about a local landowner named Fred Stanback. It was Stanback who had contacted Jane’s colleague, Dan Whittle, to complain that leaving trees standing on his property was costing him more than cutting them down. This led Dan to investigate and then challenge a state tax structure that heavily favored tree-cutting. Jane’s first draft was replete with jargon about tax policy, conservation disincentives, and other equally bloodless language. Her second draft, on the other hand, told the colorful story of a spry septuagenarian who purchased acres of forests with the fortune he made selling headache powder.

Even as she reworked her speech, the notion of relying on storytelling was scary for Jane, but it was not half as terrifying as the prospect of bombing before the board. So she took a leap of faith and rewrote her entire talk, ending with a story about the most memorable match of her professional tennis career. Her opponent that day was an up-and-coming thirteen year-old named Tracy Austin, and Jane used this detail skillfully. “Our office in Raleigh is also thirteen years old,” Jane told the board, “and while I know there are going to be some tough opponents across the net, with your support we will succeed.”

She received a standing ovation – the first anyone could remember at a board dinner. More importantly for Jane, the speech marked a turning point in her style of communicating. “When I think of all the statistics that I considered as ‘mind-blowing’ and put in past speeches,” Jane told me afterward, “I have to laugh. For the first time, I understand what mind-blowing is: it’s seeing people tune in to and get motivated by real, simple, stories.”


 free-range follow-up

Coming Next Month.You Tell Me

Actually, the July 2002 issue will be devoted to the annual Summer Reading List, but I wanted to let you know that some of the best topics for articles come from readers like you. I am constantly on the lookout for best practices, exceptional resources, or success stories worth sharing, and if you have one, please let me know. My intention all along has been to make free-range thinking an ongoing conversation among public interest communicators, so if you’ve only been “listening” so far, please feel free to speak up with a suggestion. Thanks!


Speaking Tip #2
Never End with Q&A

Right behind “Tell stories,” the second most common piece of advice I offer to public speakers is this: never conclude your presentation with a question-and-answer session. Q&A has its place, to be sure, but it’s not at the very end of your talk. Here’s why:

It’s a time-tested truth in public speaking that an audience’s attention is at its highest at the beginning and end of a speech. Most speakers recognize the value of a good first impression and carefully plan their opening, but they frequently forget to capitalize on that second surge in attention. When you turn that time over to a Q&A session, you leave too much to chance. Very often, the questions will be off the subject, devoted to exceedingly minor points, or simply serve as opportunities for attendees to blow off steam. Is this the last impression you want to leave?

Saving time for questions is considerate of your audience’s needs, but leave an extra couple of minutes after Q&A to serve your purposes. Bring the audience’s attention back to you – back to the central premise of your talk, more importantly – and end with a strong story or simple point that people can take with them from the room. This final segment provides more appropriate closure to a talk, ends your “performance” more professionally, and is more satisfying for the audience as well.