I'm well into mid-life, have earned both kinds of bachelor's degrees--arts and science--and have given countless presentations as part of this education, as well as through my work in corporate communications. Yet, public speaking has never been something I enjoy doing, mostly because it feels like my nerves wreck everything.

I just finished a book which may be an antidote to my awkwardness in front of a group. In "Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get From Good to Great," bestselling author Carmine Gallo lays out exactly how to tell a compelling story, which he explains is the cornerstone of any good pitch, presentation or interview.

While I tell stories on a page all the time, presenting to an audience in-person is an entirely different animal. The written medium is editable, but you've only got one shot when you're talking to a roomful of faces, or even when you're selling yourself or an idea to someone one-on-one.  

You need good stories to rock an interview

Gallo tells many stories throughout his book, including that of former poker champion Haseeb Qureshi, who became a millionaire playing cards, but left the game behind to go to Silicon Valley where he learned to code in a year and set off to get hired by a tech company. While he didn't have the kind of talent or experience of others competing for the jobs he was going after, what he did well was perfect his compelling story--the one which was so good it set of a frenzy of offers from the likes of Yelp, Google, Uber and Stripe. The best offer, and the one he accepted, was from Airbnb and worth $250,000 a year. Qureshi's advice for crafting your story:

Consider yourself a character in a story and structure the story with a beginning, middle and end. There should be inflection points, characters, and easy-to-understand motivations. Keep it as short as possible, while preserving the color that makes you interesting. When they ask, 'Tell us about a challenging bug you faced and how you solved it?,' tell a story.

Gallo writes that Qureshi practiced the stories he used in interviews over and over, recorded himself doing it and got feedback from others.

A good story doesn't blather on

Gallo discusses the reason TED Talks don't go past 18 minutes--anything longer is a recipe for audience boredom. In fact, some of the best stories are much, much shorter. Many of the ones he cites in the book can be delivered in about a minute. "One of the challenges with storytelling is keeping the audience's attention without putting them to sleep with a long, ponderous story," he writes. "Details are vital, but it takes practice and feedback to keep your stories compelling and brief."

Your story needs tension, struggle and a happy ending

Gallo describes the classic three-act storytelling structure, which involves three parts: the set-up, the confrontation and the resolution. It's a framework commonly used in Hollywood screenwriting, as well as in the startup world wherein founders sell their stories to elicit buy-in from investors, customers and consumers. Take Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky. While Gallo takes a couple of pages to script the story, basically it comes down to:

The setup: Two friends in San Francisco need money, rent out a couple of air mattresses on their floor and decide to turn the idea into a business.

The conflict: Chesky has no money for food, loses 20 pounds and vacillates between stress and overconfidence in the idea of people renting out their couches and bedrooms to strangers. Investors walk away from the opportunity to own 20 percent of the now $30 billion company for only $100,000.

The resolution: Even after missing the deadline for application (more tension), Airbnb gets into the highly selective Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator.

This strategy which keeps an audience in suspense and includes tension, struggle and a happy ending, triggers a release of oxytocin in listeners' brains, Gallo writes.

I could highlight several other storytelling principles Gallo includes in the book, but you're probably better off reading through the whole thing yourself. Of the many self-improvement books I've read in the last six months, this one is hands-down the most helpful, at least for someone like me who doesn't see herself as a naturally gifted orator.

Published on: Oct 8, 2018
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