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Presentation Tips: How to Choose Which Stories To Tell

Think back to the last really great presentation you attended. What was so amazing about it? Was the presenter lively and animated? Was the information relevant and on-point? Did they tell entertaining stories to keep you engaged?

The first two of those three techniques are easy—they are, in a sense, the building blocks of giving a good presentation. But if you want to give a great presentation, the kind that people keep thinking about long after you’ve stopped talking, you need to take advantage of one of the most important tools in a public speaker’s toolbox: storytelling.

Stories are one of the first ways that we interact with the world, when our parents and teachers tell us fairytales and myths as a way to teach us the most basic lessons. Stories bring complex ideas to life, increase our empathy, and help us understand the perspective of the storyteller more clearly. In other words, they’re perfect for convincing an audience to take action.

So, if you want your next sales pitch to be more persuasive, you need to tell stories that tie back to your main message. Easy, right? While it looks simple on paper, finding the right stories—the ones that drive your audience to act—can be tricky. Dozens of stories may be swirling in your head, but which one should you choose to convey?

To help you narrow down the proper tale for your speech, we enlisted the help of Lisa Braithwaite, M.A., public speaking coach, trainer and author of the free e-book Present Your Best: 11 Strategies for Magnifying Your Confidence…Both Onstage and Off.

How important are stories to a speech?

They are critical; telling a story is not a fluffy or filler activity. Stories are how most of us learned about the world since the time we were babies. They have lessons in them, and they are an easy shortcut to learning. A speaker who creates good stories will create mental pictures for the audience, which can be really powerful.

How should a speaker choose what stories to tell?

The story needs to be appropriate for the group. You need to know your audience. During the preparation phase—I recommend at least a month for this—consider sending out a survey to your audience to gauge their interest and skill level in certain areas. You don’t want to tell a story that is offensive, that the audience doesn’t understand or that isn’t relevant to them, so it pays to do your homework on whom you will be speaking to. (Here is a checklist of questions to ask about your audience before your next presentation.)

What about length?

Your audience has a much shorter attention span that you might think. If you want to keep them engaged, you need to constantly switch things up, so don’t make your story that long. I’d say a five-minute story is the longest you should go—and it needs to be a really great one to keep everyone’s attention.

What about personal stories—appropriate or not?

Yes, I think telling a personal story humanizes you to the audience. At the same time, you don’t want to make the presentation about you. Keep it mind that it is about the audience, what they need and what they care about.

The best stories evoke an emotional response. That response can be humor, anger, curiosity or intrigue. Maybe you are presenting in front of a non-profit and need to draw on their frustrations so they take action. You can tell a personal story, but make sure that the response or conclusion of the story ties back to the message you want your audience to take home.

What if the emotional response is tears?

Well, that wouldn’t be optimal. You want your story to teach your audience. If it is so emotional that people start crying—or you start crying—you need to tread carefully. You don’t want to lose your power over the audience such that they start feeling sorry for you.

What elements should each story have to make it successful?

I suggest painting pictures with words. Be descriptive. When you are talking about places, people, and things, talk about smells, sizes, colors, textures and sensations. Act it out—use gestures to demonstrate how big something was or the shape of something.

Lastly, your stories should be original. There are a lot of clichéd stories used in presentations. Those are someone else’s stories. An original can be way more impactful. Draw from your real experiences, and your stories will be more vivid and interesting to the audience.