Public appearances are fantastic to build buzz for your brand, whether you are speaking to the media or your potential customer base. Fielding the invitation to speak, however, is not the same thing as hitting it out of the park once you step onto the stage.

I'm in the midst of a five-week stretch that includes four speaking opportunities for my business in four cities. Here's the only common factor: I start with a story.

Literally, that is what the first slide in my deck always says: "Let me tell you a story." And then there's a full-screen image.

Sometimes the story is about an obscure wine I've had in a natural wine bar in Bruges, on a rainy winter night in Belgium. Sometimes the story is about a winemaker I knew when he was a student, who's also a small-town hero for a vocal majority of the audience. And sometimes the story is about the elephant in the room, which makes an intentionally provocative statement to set the stage for the message I want to deliver.

In every case, starting with a story is designed to capture the attention of the audience. Which isn't, in fact, terribly hard to do. Why not? Because it's a story, which we all find appealing at one level or another for the fundamental reason that stories build connection.

Maybe the story boosts trust, empathy or compassion, or maybe it motivates us to collaborate with others by positively influencing our behavior. Either way, engaging the audience with a story at the very start of a public speaking opportunity is the best way I have found to ensure a successful delivery and reception of my message.

Here are three storytelling principles to keep in mind, as you craft the story to kick off your own next presentation.

Plot: Beginning, Middle, End

I've been a writer far longer than I've been an entrepreneur. Here's one of the most creative and critical functions I do as I write: imagine that I hook my arm through my reader's arm, and walk us both through the start, the middle, and the end of the narrative.

My favorite part? The middle, because that's where the tension is. I don't mean tension in the sense necessarily of conflict. I mean it more as the action or the thing that propels us from Point A to Point B. It's what makes the audience's belly wrench on our behalf.

It's easy to start a story but significantly more challenging is to carry the thread all the way through the tension and the resolution of the tension, even when the resolution means a provocative or innovative suggestion of an ending. As entrepreneurs, that's often where our own pitch comes in.

Relevancy: What's in it for the audience?

Certainly, every member of the audience likes a well-told story. It resonates. But keep in mind that your audience is in their seats, listening to you, for a purpose beyond simply entertainment.

Start addressing the relevancy question as you consider your opening story and image. What is the message you want to deliver to that particular audience? What is the narrative that best illustrates that message? For me, it helps to remember a lesson from writer Maya Angelou, who said that people won't remember what you said or what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel.

Start there, as you put yourself in the shoes of your audience, and consider how you want your audience to feel once they're done listening to you.

Conclusion: Circle back to where you started.

In graduate school, when speaking at industry conference was a rite of passage, the instruction was simple and pithy: Tell them what you're going to say. Say it. And then tell them what you said.

It's good advice, even at the risk of sounding condescending. Tie it all together as you finish. For me, this happens most easily by revisiting the image I started with: it reminds both you and the audience where you started and why you're there, and why you chose to tell that particular story in the first place.

Want to get a few bonus points from your audience? Tell a joke or maybe two, particularly if you go off script and respond spontaneously to a comment or question from the audience. Telling a story you've rehearsed well is the best route toward a winning presentation, but that doesn't mean your delivery should be mechanical. Relax, savor the opportunity, and remember to keep your sense of humor.

Published on: Feb 27, 2020
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