As the EVP and CMO of a software company, I'm required to speak--often. I have to face audiences ranging in size from boardrooms to convention halls, and I have to do so in a way that's clear, concise and effective. But I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I haven't always been a confident or comfortable public speaker. Like any learned skill, it took practice and trial and error.

Here's another secret I've discovered: the key to being an effective speaker isn't memorizing lines or rehearsing your piece to perfection--it's having a good story. When you tell a story, you're speaking from the heart. On the other hand, when you're regurgitating facts and figures, you rarely come across as comfortable (and you're likely also putting your audience to sleep.)

I know what you're thinking. "That's all well and good, but how do I tell a story people actually want to hear?"

And that's exactly what I'm going to share.

3 Elements of a Captivating Story

If you've ever seen speeches by Dr. Brené Brown, TEDx coach Erin Weed or Arianna Huffington, you'll notice one thing they all have in common: they're captivating. When you listen to these women speak, you aren't checking your watch, daydreaming or silently wishing they'd "get to the point." You're entertained, engaged and, chances are, you'll remember a majority of what they have to say.

To achieve this level of speech nirvana, you need three elements:

  1. Honesty: Don't make up stories. Embellish? Sure. But always draw from your own real experiences. An audience can smell a fake from a mile away.
  2. A Lesson: In my case, when I'm speaking to a room full of professionals I'm usually telling a business-related story. Maybe it's about how I overcame a particular challenge or handled a certain issue. Either way, there's always a moral, a nugget of wisdom I gained from my experience I can share with my audience.
  3. An Inspiring or Motivating Theme: Your story should always end on a high note--something that fills people with excitement and the drive to make a change.

Why Are Stories So Important in the Professional World?

Humans are addicted to stories. We spend our free time binge-watching TV programs, devouring books or listening to our friends' latest adventures. But why are stories so powerful in the professional sphere?

In short, it's because we're looking for answers. We're all experiencing similar things, but we're not always aware the problem we're facing has already been faced and even solved by someone else. Stories help us connect to solutions and form bonds with others who have navigated similar journeys.

Regardless of your career level, experience or past successes, everyone needs a guidepost or mentor. Hearing stories about other people's successes (and failures) helps us feel more confident in the choices and decisions we make every day.

How Can Anyone Become a Better Storyteller?

First, you need to have stories to tell. Draw from relationships with your customers, teammates, peers--or even friends and family. But remember: the best stories come from things you're passionate about. Consider the enthusiasm of your favorite TED Talk speakers. If you're not as wholeheartedly invested in something, and you're not as excited to share something, then it's going to show.

We often hear we should keep our emotions cloaked--especially as upper level executives and business leaders. And while it's certainly important to draw from your emotional intelligence to prevent inappropriate outbursts--it's also important your team members and customers see you as authentic.

From fear and sadness to joy and relief, the most effective storytellers convey genuine emotions because they know their audience is more likely to become invested when they can relate.

Published on: Aug 29, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.