Public Speaking Tip: Tell Specific Stories

Read these four statements, then answer the question(s) that follow in italics:

1. North Carolina was a bit too hot when I visited last year. How hot do you think it was?

2. Not too long ago, I attended the professor’s lecture. How long ago, exactly, was “not too long ago?”

3. The customer was irate. How old was the customer? Was the customer a man or woman?

4. A friend of mine working in high tech makes a ton of money every year. How much does he or she make?

Here are my answers: For question one, it was 93 degrees; for question two, “not too long ago” was sometime in 2008; for question three, the customer was a 73-year-old man; for question four, the man makes $800,000 per year. (What were your answers? Please leave the in the comments section below.)

My guess is that your answers differed from mine, and the four ambiguous statements at the beginning of this post are to blame. The type of ambiguity found in those questions is too often a problem for public speakers, since stories filled with undefined generalities aren’t as effective as they should be.

Let’s take a step back and answer a critical question: what is the purpose of telling a story during a speech or presentation?

Almost always, a story’s purpose is to make one of your main messages more memorable. Stories reinforce the message, using specifics to make abstract messages more tangible. For example, your message might be:

“Pennsylvania’s unreasonable malpractice laws have resulted in thousands of pregnant women living more than 100 miles from their obstetricians, a potentially life-threatening distance during medical emergencies.”

Imagine if your story related to that message was:

“One woman recently lost her child because she couldn’t get to her doctor in time.”

Sure, that story resonates at least somewhat, but not as much as it should. Instead, imagine if the supporting story looked like this:

“Last month, I met a 26-year-old woman from Altoona named Jane. She told me that last year, she went into early labor during her seventh month of pregnancy. The paramedics got there in time, but they didn’t have the skills to help when Jane’s new baby boy was unable to breathe. Her baby died, and he probably would have survived if Jane’s skilled obstetrician lived nearby. It’s been almost a year since that happened, and Jane says she is still tortured when she thinks about how things could have been different.”

The specifics in that story – her age, her name, her hometown, how many months pregnant she was, the baby’s gender – all serve the purpose of bringing the main message to life. And it doesn’t take more than about 20 seconds to articulate all of that detail. So next time you give a speech, help your audience remember your messages by replacing ambiguous stories with ones full of memorable details.

The idea for the type of questionnaire at the beginning of this post is not original – I saw a variation on this theme somewhere years ago. Trouble is, I can’t remember where. Please email me if you know the original source so I can give them full attribution.

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