January 24, 2008
Stories Are the Point
Bob Harvey, my former pastor, told the congregation in a sermon about the time he was on vacation at a lake, sitting in a giant inner tube when suddenly and unexpectedly he lost his balance and found himself upside down in the water, still stuck in the tube. As a man with a few extra pounds on his frame, he was unable to get out and right himself. While he was underwater trying to figure out what to do, he told us, he thought, You know, this will make a good sermon illustration.
Perhaps the first rule of public speaking (and writing, of course) is tell stories. (The second is have some humor, but more on that later.) Facts touch our minds. Stories touch our whole person. Stories tell us who we were, who we are and who we can be.
Stories aren't just window dressing. They are every bit as much part of your content as the information you might include. They are bound to stick with us long after the facts have been forgotten.
There are lots of canned inspirational and motivational-speaker stories out there. Avoid them. They easily come off as artificial. The best stories are from your own life of from those you know.
* Collect Stories. Keep a file of stories from your childhood, stories your parents told you about their lives. Include anything funny or dramatic or unexpected, even if you are not sure you will ever use the stories. You may actually find that stories can have more than one point and be used for several purposes.
* Turn Facts into a Story. If you have somewhat dry information to pass on as part of your talk, tell the story about how you learned these things, how you reacted when you discovered them and what difference that made.
* Practice Telling Stories. Be alert to funny or interesting things, situations, happenings during the day or week. Try them out with friends at meals. See how people react. Write down and file the good ones.
* Build the Drama. Think about how to improve the drama of a story, whether at an informal meal or while giving a talk. Don’t always give the conclusion right away, put some space between the beginning and the end with other content or reflections. Alternately, before you get to the end of a story, back up and tell what happened beforehand that led up to the story you were telling.
* End Where You Begin. Having a strong story early in a talk is always helpful. Come back to that story at the very end with what happened years later, for example.
* Be Vulnerable. Personal stories that show your own weakness or mistakes will help your audience identify with you, appreciate you and open themselves up to what you have to say.
After Bob Harvey told us what he thought while stuck upside down in an inner tube, we all howled. As is typical, I don't remember what that sermon was about. I remember the story. But I also remember that Bob (who died some years later) was a humble, self-effacing man whose character had an impact on everyone he touched, including me. His story was the point. And I got it.