In this episode of my podcast The Introverted Speaker Show, I’m going to talk about a technique (it’s more than a technique actually) that can make anybody speaking in public much more persuasive and interesting, no matter their experience: storytelling.
Hello, and welcome to The Introverted Speaker Show!
This is the 4th episode of the show, and this week I’m going to talk about a technique, well it’s more than a technique, it’s an art form, but it’s usually used as a technique in public speaking: storytelling.
Storytelling has been used, and misused and overused since marketers discovered it. Nowadays everybody says “you should use storytelling” or “take care of your storytelling”, like it is some magic term, and it’s not always clear what “storytelling” is.
We, as human beings, love stories. We crave stories. When you try to teach something to people, when you teach them hard facts, whether it’s in a book or in a presentation, you can bore them very fast. It’s very hard to get people’s attention by simply lecturing them. And, given nowadays’ very limited attention spans, it’s very hard to keep their attention. Sure, if you’re only factual, only theoretical, if you only give rational data in your talks, you will have people listening to you. But most people will stop listening, they will stop caring, maybe some of them will politely nod, but that’s it.
And, when you tell stories, on the other hand, you captivate people.
Stories Are At The Core Of Successful Religions
That’s how most religions thrive. Because, when you come to think about it, all the major religions are built around stories. All of them. Now, are they true stories or are they false stories, to each his own, but even if you’re a very religious person, you have to admit most of these religious stories are false. Because they can’t be all true at the same time. And yet, these stories spread out, and the underlying faith spread out with them.
I’ll take Christianity as an example. when the evangelists wrote their gospel, when they wrote the second part of the Bible, the New Testament, they chose to tell the story of the life of Jesus. They could have focused on his teachings, on the underlying theories, on the ethical rules all christians should follow, that kind of things. But they didn’t. They chose to focus on the story. And remember, nowadays paper is cheap, printing is damn cheap, and sending electronic documents all around the world is even cheaper. But, back then, it was damn expensive. Writing was expensive, because people had to write by hand. Manuscripts. And not only that, but pens were not as sophisticated as they are nowadays. They were a pain in the arse, quite frankly. And not only that, but the support was very expensive back then. We take paper for granted nowadays, but back then you had to use parchments. Meaning leather. Yes, a parchment is made from leather. So you can imagine how expensive that was. Yeah, back then, when you wrote something, you better had a good reason for it. And yet, the evangelists chose to write the story of Jesus, rather than just the bare, essential teachings.
Why did they focus on the stories? Because human beings crave stories. We are story addicts. We always want more.
Think about it. Religions teach us why the world is the way it is, how it works, and how to behave in this world. And that’s what philosophers do, too. Especially ancient, greek and roman philosophers. Like Plato, for instance. Or Aristotle. Or Epicurus. And these philosophers had different opinions on why the world was the way it was and how to behave in it (which is called ethics). So, they did the same as religions.
Why didn’t they succeed as well, then? Why do so many people consider themselves religious, why do so many people call them Christians, or Jews, or Buddhist, and why so few people call themselves Platonicians or Aristotelicians? One of the reasons is, philosophers didn’t focus their teachings on stories. They focused mostly on theories, on academic teachings (and Academia actually comes from the name of Aristotle’s school), and not a lot (if at all) on stories. As a consequence, their teaching is very dry and, to a popular listener, boring. I mean, even nowadays, if given the choice, what would most people do: watch a peplum movie, like The Ten Commandments, or attend a lecture about Aristotle’s ontological theories about universals and particulars? Of course people want to see how Moses opens the sea and drowns Egyptian soldiers.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know religious texts don’t only contain stories, they also contain practical and ethical rules, and other things that have nothing to do with stories. But a significant part of religious texts is written as stories.
The Invention Of Cliffhangers
Do you want another example? OK, let me tell you a story then. A story about stories. A story from the Arabian Nights, the most important one actually, the story of Scheherazade. It was back in time, like around Xth century, something like that. The king of some oriental country, Schariar, discovered his wife was cheating on him. And he got a little pissed off by that. He got his wife beheaded, her lover beheaded too, and he decided he would never be cheated by a woman anymore. So he decided every day, he would marry a virgin, spend the night with her, and get her beheaded in the morning. That way she wouldn’t cheat on her ever. Kind a bit of an overreaction if you ask me, but that’s the way he was.
And there was a problem with his strategy. Very fast, the kingdom was running out of virgin women who wanted to marry the king, surprisingly. That’s the moment when Scheherazade, a young woman, decided to marry her. But she was not crazy. She had a stratagem. In the middle of the night, her young sister, who was a servant, awoke her and asked her: “hey, Scheherazade, since you’re such a great storyteller and you’re going to die tomorrow, I won’t hear you tell me stories anymore. So, please, tell me one more time the story of the old man and the djinn.” And Scheherazade started telling the story. And the king, who was awoken too, was listening to the story too. And he was fascinated. Until all of a sudden, at the moment in the story when the djinn was about to kill the old man, Scheherazade said “oh, but look, it’s the sunset already. I have to stop now. Sorry, I can’t tell you the end of the story.” Because you see, back then, stories were a nighttime thing only. You couldn’t tell stories during daytime. And it was daytime, and she was going to be beheaded, so the king would never hear the end of the story, and he was really disappointed, but he couldn’t tell it. So he went like “oh, ok, ok, I won’t get you killed today, let’s make an exception, Ill keep you with me one more day, so you can tell the end of the story to your little sister. I’m no monster.”
And, the second night, she told the end of the story. And her sister asked her: “oh, and the story about the 3 apples, could you tell me the story about the 3 apples? I love it!” And Scheherazade started telling the story, and she was interrupted in the middle by the sunset, and the king was pissed off again, and gave her one more day. And so on and so forth, until after several years of storytelling, the king decided not to get Scheherazade killed, and they lived happily for ever.
Yep, Scheherazade invented the concept of cliffhanger.
That’s the power of stories. They keep an audience interested. It’s very hard to bore people with a story, unless you deliver it poorly obviously. But stories are not pure entertainment as I just said a few minutes ago (they are at the core of very serious stuff like religions, after all). You can give a message or teach something through a story.
But how does it work? Why do we find stories so fascinating? There is an explanation. A scientific explanation. I can’t link you to the study, because I read about it a while ago, but I’ll tell you what I remember of it. You see, when you are given a lecture, when you are told cold facts, raw data, that kind of things, only the most superficial areas of your brain are activated. The area responsible for language. The person in front of you is using language, you are decrypting that language and making sense of what’s being said, and that’s it. But, when you are being told a story, something completely different happens. When you are told about a character who is scared, for instance, let’s say he’s scared, he’s running away from some danger, he’s scared, and he’’s hungry, so he has to hide from his enemies, but he also must find some food really fast. Well, when you’re said such a story, tons of areas are activated in your brain: the area responsible for fright, and the area responsible for hunger. You’re literally rooting for the protagonist of the story, because you feel like what’s happening to him is also happening to you. Stories are experiences that we live through a proxy. When a character experiences something, we experience it too, through him. That’s why we can be easily absorbed by stories.
So, if you want to make your speeches or your presentations more interesting and more convincing, you should try to inject stories here and there. It will help you connect with your audience, much more than a phoney joke or a shy eye contact here and there.
Yes, that’s possible even if you think your topic is very theoretical, or very academic, with ton of abstract concepts and tons of raw data. I’d say it’s even more important, actually. You could say why what you’re talking about is important. You could give examples of why it’s useful. Either real-life examples, or parables. You know, parables are made up stories that explain why you should behave in a certain way. Or, you could even structure your talk as a story. That’s possible too, and that’s something I talk about in The Introverted Speaker’s Crash Course On Public Speaking.
Anyway. There’s a lot to say about storytelling in public speaking, much more than I can say in a podcast or even in several podcasts, and I’ll probably make a whole course on this topic someday. But you don’t have to wait for it to insert stories, parables or anecdotes in your next talk. Yes, even if you have very little technique in storytelling. Even if you never did it. Just give it a try. You’ll be surprised.
And that’s it for today, that’s the end of that episode of The Introverted Speaker’s Show. I hope you enjoyed it, don’t forget to subscribe to get the next episodes, and if you want to talk with me about this episode by e-mail, or if you want to subscribe to my newsletter and get daily e-mail tips about public speaking and introversion, just go to my website TheIntrovertedSpeaker.com.
OK, thanks for listening and see you next time, bye!