Doesn’t Anyone Know the Value of a Story?

I’ve spent the last two days at the University of Michigan attending my son Benjamin’s freshman orientation.  The school had a  well-organized series of sessions for parents. And it reinforced for me one major point about public speaking.

Almost no one knows the value of a story.

Over and over college administrators, health professionals, professors, and public safety professionals would stand up to talk to us about what our kids could expect at the University of Michigan. And over and over we’d get a series of bullet points, delivered somewhat randomly.

You’d think an English professor of all people would understand the value of a story. I was an English major and can tell you that all we did was read, think and write about stories. 

Yet when this lovely professor stood to talk about how to succeed academically, all she could produce was a series of somewhat random thoughts. “Be sure to build a relationship with the professors,” she said. “It’s a good idea to do a little bit of work on all your courses every day.”  “Don’t procrastinate.” Blah, blah blah. 

Couldn’t she just tell me one story about someone who did it right? Or someone who did it wrong?

Leave it to the tiniest voice to give a lesson to everyone. That voice was from a rather awkwark sophmore woman who was asked to stand in front of this group of 200 parents and talk about how to select classes.

She walked to the front of the room, looking a little nervous.  But she stood nice and straight with her hands at her sides as she proceeded to tell us about how she found herself taking an unusual course her freshman year.

“I had taken German in high school,” she explained. “But when I started looking through the course catalog, I found so many interesting courses, I wanted to take something unusual.”

So she took Yiddish.  And she found it hard but rewarding. “I think it’s important to take some courses just because you find them interesting,” she said. “It’s just another way to take advantage of this great university.”

Wonderful!  Of all the messages I’ve gotten over the last two days, that message is the one that sticks more than any others. And it’s because it came through a story.

The Nine Critical Communication Skills

If you want to succeed in business, what are the critical communication skills?

I’ve come up with nine. You need the ability to:

  1. Give a persuasive 10-minute presentation.
  2. Deliver an elevator pitch for your business, division, project, etc.
  3. Make a cold call.
  4. Report out on a project with no preparation.
  5. Deliver bad news.
  6. Answer a question in a way that inspires confidence.
  7. Build a relationship through listening.
  8. Tell a story.
  9. Rebut an objection.

Did I miss any?

Lesson in the Need for Rehearsal from the Moon

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk. It was also the anniversary of one of the most historic flubbed lines of all time.

When Armstrong set foot on the moon he said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Of course, the plan was for him to say “That’s one small step for A man, one giant leap for mankind.”

But in the excitement of the moment, he left out the “a”.

I heard his shipmate Buzz Aldrin on the radio yesterday explaining that they had been so involved with planning the mission that they had come up with the line at the last minute.

But Armstrong apparently didn’t have enough time to rehearse.

The lesson: if it’s important to you, rehearse.

Storytelling Rule Number Two: Make it Personal

The best stories are the ones that happened to you personally. That’s because they’re unique to you and give the audience something that they can’t get anywhere else.

I was working with a businessman once as he prepared for a presentation. He wanted to make a point about the importance of faith. I urged him to tell me a story that illustrated his point.

He thought about it for a moment and then began telling me a story that was from the Bible.

When I told him not to tell a Bible story, he seemed offended.  “The Bible is important to me,” he said.

“That’s fine,”  I said. “I’m not against Bible stories as a general rule. But they’re not original and therefore not that interesting.”

I explained to him that many people in the audience have already heard almost every Bible story. But no one has heard his personal stories.

“If you want to tell a story about faith, that’s fine with me,” I said. “But tell me your own personal story of faith. Tell me about how your own experience. I can’t get that anywhere else but from you.”

Great Public Speaking Takes Years of Effort

One of the truths of public speaking that is often forgotten is that it is a skill developed over time.

When I first got into the public speaking business about 10 years ago, I received some coaching and within a couple of months, I was teaching and giving seminars. Before long, I was invited by Georgia Tech to speak at an event at the business school. There may have been 100 people there to hear my seminar.  And one of the professors gave me some very nice compliments.

Just recently I was invited back to Georgia Tech to speak in the business school.  And that same professor heard me speak again.  “I heard you speak ten years ago,” she said. “And I remember how good you were. But you’re so much better now. You have really learned to connect with audiences.”

I don’t tell this story to boast about my skills as a speaker. Rather, I’m telling the story because this professor’s comments drove home for me a point about how to get great at something like public speaking. It takes sustained effort over time.

Busting the Mehrabian Myth

Here’s a fun video from a British communication skills coaching firm. The video addresses a study conducted many years ago by Albert Mehrabian, a social scientist who studied the way that we communicate.  Many presentation skills coaching firms have over-emphasized Mehrabian’s study, citing it for the idea that style is far more important than substance.

At Speechworks, we have cited the study for years. But we don’t see it as a religion. Rather, we merely cite it for the idea that how you look and sound matters.  We feel strongly that you have to have great content to give a great speech.



Mark Twain: “How to Tell a Story.”


When you Google “How to Tell a Story”, one of the first things to come up is the following essay from Mark Twain.  I have to say that I truly don’t get the point.  Maybe someone out there can explain it to me.  Here it is:

I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told. I only claim to know how a story ought to be told, for I have been almost daily in the company of the most expert story-tellers for many years.

There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind–the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.

The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.

The humorous story is strictly a work of art–high and delicate art– and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story–understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print–was created in America, and has remained at home.

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the “nub” of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.

Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub.

Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at. Dan Setchell used it before him, Nye and Riley and others use it to-day.

But the teller of the comic story does not slur the nub; he shouts it at you–every time. And when he prints it, in England, France, Germany, and Italy, he italicizes it, puts some whooping exclamation-points after it, and sometimes explains it in a parenthesis. All of which is very depressing, and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.

Let me set down an instance of the comic method, using an anecdote which has been popular all over the world for twelve or fifteen hundred years. The teller tells it in this way:


In the course of a certain battle a soldier whose leg had been shot off appealed to another soldier who was hurrying by to carry him to the rear, informing him at the same time of the loss which he had sustained; whereupon the generous son of Mars, shouldering the unfortunate, proceeded to carry out his desire. The bullets and cannon-balls were flying in all directions, and presently one of the latter took the wounded man’s head off–without, however, his deliverer being aware of it. In no-long time he was hailed by an officer, who said:

“Where are you going with that carcass?”

“To the rear, sir–he’s lost his leg!”

“His leg, forsooth?” responded the astonished officer; “you mean his head, you booby.”

Whereupon the soldier dispossessed himself of his burden, and stood looking down upon it in great perplexity. At length he said:

“It is true, sir, just as you have said.” Then after a pause he added, “But he TOLD me IT WAS HIS LEG! ! ! ! !”

Here the narrator bursts into explosion after explosion of thunderous horse-laughter, repeating that nub from time to time through his gaspings and shriekings and suffocatings.

It takes only a minute and a half to tell that in its comic-story form; and isn’t worth the telling, after all. Put into the humorous-story form it takes ten minutes, and is about the funniest thing I have ever listened to–as James Whitcomb Riley tells it.

He tells it in the character of a dull-witted old farmer who has just heard it for the first time, thinks it is unspeakably funny, and is trying to repeat it to a neighbor. But he can’t remember it; so he gets all mixed up and wanders helplessly round and round, putting in tedious details that don’t belong in the tale and only retard it; taking them out conscientiously and putting in others that are just as useless; making minor mistakes now and then and stopping to correct them and explain how he came to make them; remembering things which he forgot to put in in their proper place and going back to put them in there; stopping his narrative a good while in order to try to recall the name of the soldier that was hurt, and finally remembering that the soldier’s name was not mentioned, and remarking placidly that the name is of no real importance, anyway–better, of course, if one knew it, but not essential, after all– and so on, and so on, and so on.

The teller is innocent and happy and pleased with himself, and has to stop every little while to hold himself in and keep from laughing outright; and does hold in, but his body quakes in a jelly-like way with interior chuckles; and at the end of the ten minutes the audience have laughed until they are exhausted, and the tears are running down their faces.

The simplicity and innocence and sincerity and unconsciousness of the old farmer are perfectly simulated, and the result is a performance which is thoroughly charming and delicious. This is art and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a machine could tell the other story.

To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.

Artemus Ward dealt in numbers three and four a good deal. He would begin to tell with great animation something which he seemed to think was wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently absent-minded pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way; and that was the remark intended to explode the mine–and it did.

For instance, he would say eagerly, excitedly, “I once knew a man in New Zealand who hadn’t a tooth in his head”–here his animation would die out; a silent, reflective pause would follow, then he would say dreamily, and as if to himself, “and yet that man could beat a drum better than any man I ever saw.”

The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length–no more and no less–or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is passed, and [and if too long] the audience have had time to divine that a surprise is intended–and then you can’t surprise them, of course.

On the platform I used to tell a negro ghost story that had a pause in front of the snapper on the end, and that pause was the most important thing in the whole story. If I got it the right length precisely, I could spring the finishing ejaculation with effect enough to make some impressible girl deliver a startled little yelp and jump out of her seat –and that was what I was after. This story was called “The Golden Arm,” and was told in this fashion. You can practise with it yourself–and mind you look out for the pause and get it right.


Once ‘pon a time dey wuz a monsus mean man, en he live ‘way out in de prairie all ‘lone by hisself, ‘cep’n he had a wife. En bimeby she died, en he tuck en toted her way out dah in de prairie en buried her. Well, she had a golden arm–all solid gold, fum de shoulder down. He wuz pow’ful mean–pow’ful; en dat night he couldn’t sleep, Gaze he want dat golden arm so bad.

When it come midnight he couldn’t stan’ it no mo’; so he git up, he did, en tuck his lantern en shoved out thoo de storm en dug her up en got de golden arm; en he bent his head down ‘gin de win’, en plowed en plowed en plowed thoo de snow. Den all on a sudden he stop (make a considerable pause here, and look startled, and take a listening attitude) en say: “My LAN’, what’s dat!”

En he listen–en listen–en de win’ say (set your teeth together and imitate the wailing and wheezing singsong of the wind), “Bzzz-z-zzz”— en den, way back yonder whah de grave is, he hear a voice! he hear a voice all mix’ up in de win’ can’t hardly tell ’em ‘part–” Bzzz-zzz– W-h-o–g-o-t–m-y–g-o-l-d-e-n arm? –zzz–zzz– W-h-o g-o-t m-y g-o-l- d-e-n arm!” (You must begin to shiver violently now.)

En he begin to shiver en shake, en say, “Oh, my! OH, my lan’! “en de win’ blow de lantern out, en de snow en sleet blow in his face en mos’ choke him, en he start a-plowin’ knee-deep towards home mos’ dead, he so sk’yerd–en pooty soon he hear de voice agin, en (pause) it ‘us comin’ after him! “Bzzz–zzz–zzz–W-h-o–g-o-t m-y–g-o-l-d-e-n–arm?”

When he git to de pasture he hear it agin closter now, en a-comin’!– a-comin’ back dah in de dark en de storm–(repeat the wind and the voice). When he git to de house he rush up-stairs en jump in de bed en kiver up, head and years, en lay dah shiverin’ en shakin’–en den way out dah he hear it agin!–en a-comin’! En bimeby he hear (pause–awed, listening attitude)–pat–pat–pat–hit’s acomin’ up-stairs! Den he hear de latch, en he know it’s in de room!

Den pooty soon he know it’s a-stannin’ by de bed! (Pause.) Den–he know it’s a-bendin’ down over him–en he cain’t skasely git his breath! Den– den–he seem to feel someth’ n c-o-l-d, right down ‘most agin his head! (Pause.)

Den de voice say, right at his year–“W-h-o g-o-t–m-y–g-o-l-d-e-n arm?” (You must wail it out very plaintively and accusingly; then you stare steadily and impressively into the face of the farthest-gone auditor–a girl, preferably–and let that awe-inspiring pause begin to build itself in the deep hush. When it has reached exactly the right length, jump suddenly at that girl and yell, “You’ve got it!”)

If you’ve got the pause right, she’ll fetch a dear little yelp and spring right out of her shoes. But you must get the pause right; and you will find it the most troublesome and aggravating and uncertain thing you ever undertook.

Step One for Telling a Great Story: Make a Big Promise

The first step in telling a good story is to make a promise.  And if you want it to be a great story, it needs to be a big promise.

When you make a big promise, you’re setting an expectation in your listeners’ minds.  There is tension: “will she be able to fulfill the promise?”

That’s how “Law and Order” always starts. With a promise.

At the beginning of every show, someone (it seems to me like it’s always one of two kids playing basketball) finds a corpse.  That corpse is a promise. It’s a promise that says, “If you watch the show, we’re going to tell you everything there is to know about this corpse including who did it and why.”

You pay attention to the rest of the show because you want to experience the delivery of the promise.

In a business story, it’s the same. A good story starts with a big promise. “OK team, I’m here to talk about how we can all double our bonuses next year.” It’s a promise that the listeners are interested in.  The team then pays attention because they want to hear how the promise is fulfilled.

Public Speaking Tip From Farrah Fawcett

“The reason that the all-American boy prefers beauty to brains is that he can see better than he can think.”

Those are the words of Farrah Fawcett, the model and actress who died recently.

Her point is clearly relevant to issues of public speaking. What we say in a presentation is obviously important. But many people make a huge mistake by underestimating the importance of how we look and sound.

If you were to simply read the words of the classic song “Teddy Bear”, it wouldn’t seem like much. But let Elvis deliver those same words and suddenly the song touches you deep down. 

Farrah Fawcett was right. Visual (and vocal) impressions matter a lot.