February 18, 2016
(Editor's note: This is excerpted from Tom Pfeifer's upcoming book, Write It, Speak It.)
Why stories? For two reasons.
One, people relate to stories much more than they do numbers or a recitation
of facts. We’re humans. We’ve been telling stories around the fire since we
could first utter words. Think about all the family stories you’ve heard that
have been passed down from generation to generation. We relate to stories—
and the storyteller—and are much more likely to remember what he or she said,
as well as comprehend it. But here’s the kicker for you as someone trying to
eulogize your fears: stories are easier for the speaker to remember too.
When I first embarked on the road to public speaking, I tried to memorize my
speeches. I failed completely. My brain would freeze on stage. I was dying up
there. My friend and mentor Paul White mentioned one day that he, too, tried
memorization and it didn’t work for him either. So then he tried just telling
stories, and he could do that. So I tried telling stories too. And it worked.
Listeners remember stories too. It’s a win-win. In fact, scientists tell us stories
activate the brain. Archeologists tell us storytelling has been around at least as
long as cave paintings, and probably longer. Advertisers use them to sell to us.
Comedians use them to make us laugh. Speakers use them to make their
So what makes a great story? First, it must be relatable. You and I must connect emotionally. One of the stories I tell is about my first day working in a newspaper office. I had been told by my college journalism professor at the end of my freshman year—my freshman year—that as far as she was concerned, I was already a professional and there wasn’t much more she could teach me. That certainly swelled my ego. The copy editor who crumpled up my first story and threw it in my face, growling, “Rewrite that. I can’t turn this into the proofreader,” popped my ego like a pricked balloon.
It’s a story of puffed up failure and lessons learned. And most everyone can relate to that.
A key ingredient of a great speech is to spark action. I have several stories that appear in different speeches. The story I tell about my first day working at a newspaper; stories about my mom, dad, and siblings—even a story about my tie. They’re all stories I’ve used in speeches multiple times. The key is to use them to make the point you want to make. And the same stories can be used to make different points.
Stories can come from anywhere: a church outing, perhaps; maybe a conversation around the dinner table. Your childhood. Your working life. Your parents. Your kids. You know why telling stories in speeches are important: Because you remember them! And so does your audience! Stories provide an emotional bond between you and your audience.
So what are you going to do to remember your speeches and make them memorable? Tell stories!
Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.