Only tell stories if you want people to pay attention to you.

Last month, I wrote a piece about a funny Alaska Airlines flight attendant and got a bigger response from readers than I have in months. I have found consistently over the years that the newsletters that contain personal stories get more attention than those that try to teach.

So, I’ll tell you a story–about telling stories.
(then I’ll sneak in a few tips at the end)

A woman arrived at work one morning and held the door for someone who was walking up behind her. She dropped her backpack off at her desk, then went to the bathroom. The tailgater (not either of these guys in the photo below) followed her to her desk several paces back, picked up her bag with her laptop, wallet, access badge, etc. and walked right back out the front door. All of this was captured on the security cameras. Instant Karma.


A participant recently shared this story when I was teaching a workshop at PayPal. He was the Head of Security, and he was talking about how to keep PayPal safe. One of his suggestions was to prevent “tailgating” (letting people slip in behind you without badging in). But instead of listing all the reasons why this is bad, he told us that story.

Now every time I badge into a building, I think of that story.

Why should you care? Because stories will help you be a better speaker. Because people love to hear (and read) stories. Because stories are sticky. They put you in a comfortable, conversational delivery mode. They engage our feelings and bypass normal defense mechanisms. They help us understand complexity and can enhance or change perceptions in a way that facts and slides can’t.

Here are a few tips on how to use stories in your presentations:

Tell specific stories vs. general ones. Instead of, “We used to always go down to the lake in the morning and see the birds …” say, “Last week, we went to the lake and saw a bird with a snake in its mouth…” Specific always beats general, and helps your listeners see a crisp image in their mind. This engages both their verbal and visual memory.

Define your story arc. Good stories have elements including a strong plot, characters, challenge, and resolution. Make sure to include these “sticky” components to your story.

Make them recent. Something that happened to you yesterday is always more interesting than if it happened years ago.

Use stories at different parts of your talk.
– As a Hook in the beginning
– To illustrate a point
– To grab people’s attention when it drifts
– When you think of one that is relevant to the topic
– To answer a question
– At the end of your talk
– Or, make your whole talk a story from which you tease out your points

Plan. Just like using humor, you must plan on what stories you are going to tell and where. A good rule is to use a Pattern Disruption (story, humor or interaction) every minute or two.

Practice your stories. You wouldn’t think you’d need to practice a story, but you should if you want them to be concise, interesting and effective.

So go easy on the heavy content and busy slides, and spend some time making your talks interesting. Everyone wins.