Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Make storytelling compelling with details

Telling a story can be a powerful way to engage your audience, breathe life into a speech or presentation, get away from jargon to explain a complex point, or persuade your listeners.  But if you want the telling to be compelling, you need to sweat the details.

And not just any details.  An effective story includes details that are:
  1. Visual:  Jacqueline Novogratz opens her speech on global humanitarian aid with a story about a funny-looking sweater she wore at age 12. She describes it in detail:  The blue sweater "had fuzzy zebras walking across the stomach, and Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru were kind of right across the chest, that were also fuzzy. And I wore it whenever I could, thinking it was the most fabulous thing I owned."  That's the picture you have in mind when she recounts seeing the sweater more than a decade later on a child in Rwanda.  Go here to watch Novogratz tell the story.
  2. Symbolic:  Rockefeller University president and geneticist Paul Nurse, in "Discussing Family Trees in School Can Be Dangerous," shares a secret from his own family genetics--a story in which he shares how he found out who his real mother was.  Go here to listen to the audio of Nurse telling this story and wait for the description of the family photos his sister always kept on her bedside table. The photos put the family secret in plain sight for decades, and allowed her to acknowledge something she couldn't say publicly.  Nurse doesn't have to tell you those two things about the photos; he lets you connect the dots yourself.  I think of those photos whenever I think of this talk.
  3. Surprising:  Penn State president President Graham Spanier just gave a speech called "What I Can Learn From Sleeping in the Residence Halls."  That may sound surprising enough, but wait--there's more. In this interview, he recounts one story about how he wound up in the women's showers in a dorm--and what he learned:
The first time I ever stayed in the residence halls was the first year I was president in 1995. I had lunch with eight women. I asked them, 'If you were president of Penn State what is one thing you would change?' One woman said, "Shower hooks. There are no shower hooks in the showers. When we bring our robes we have to put them on the floor.' I said, 'Show me.' We looked and, sure enough, there were no hooks. Within two weeks they all had them. It was a little thing, but it showed you can learn a lot by listening to students.
A funny sweater. Photos on a bedside table. Shower hooks.  Because they're visual, symbolic and surprising, all of these details stick with the audience.  What will your story details be?

Related posts: Paul Nurse: Tell a story on yourself

Jacqueline Novogratz on speaking up for a cause

Learn storytelling online: 3 ways

A speechwriter's secrets to storytelling

Need to give an impromptu speech? Tell a familiar (to you) story

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