If you’re asked to give a presentation in the final hours of a four-day conference, then brace yourself, because you’re facing some serious impediments. Your audience members have been on a fevered engagement high for half a week. They’re exhausted. They’re ready to catch flights back home. And they’re tapped out on charts and data.
So what do you do if you’re in one of the more unfavorable positions that a public speaker can face? How do you keep an audience engaged during a presentation? You let down your guard — and you let your audience in.
A Tale of Effective Professional Storytelling
If your immediate response is, “Great idea, but a story won’t keep an audience engaged,” you’re incorrect. I’ve seen how powerful storytelling can be, even if your listeners’ minds seem to be wandering.
Take the case of a presenter at a convention I attended. It was the final dinner. About 1,500 of us were sipping coffee, clanking cutlery, and feeling wary of listening to another speech. Our presenter, seemingly unfazed, walked onto the stage full of confidence.
Her speech began on a typical note: She introduced herself as an employee of an organization committed to helping people who have served jail time successfully reintegrate into society. She shared some alarming statistics on how difficult it is for incarcerated people to get a fair shake on the other side of justice.
So far, her approach had been informative. We stirred cream into our coffee, listening politely (but not totally engaged in her speech). Then, it happened: She went into full storytelling mode. With a notable change in her cadence and demeanor, she began talking about how she became a single parent years ago. After giving birth, she worked three jobs while trying to finish school. She regaled us with stories about school bake sales and late-night essays.
Many of us in the audience could relate to her hectic schedule and inability to juggle everything. That is, until she shared a story about the night that a co-worker offered her methamphetamine to help her stay awake. Within a few weeks, she was hooked. And we were riveted by a presentation that had turned very personal.
When the pills ran out, our speaker told us, she became desperate. She stole money from an employer, bought drugs off the streets, and eventually landed in jail for 18 months. She lost everything — including precious time with her daughter.
No one in the audience breathed. No one moved. No one reached for sugar packets across the table. We were all connected by a brilliant woman who understood how to keep an audience truly engaged during a presentation. She wasn’t just telling a story. She was the story. And that changed everything for the audience.
Using Storytelling to Become a Better Speaker
Now, you might never give a speech under such challenging circumstances. However, if you work long enough, you’ll give some kind of presentation or speech during your career. When you’re preparing, remember that one of the most effective strategies to become a better speaker is to use storytelling.
Why do we love stories? Chalk it up to human nature: Stories are how we connect; they help us belong. And when we belong to something, we feel connected to something.
Consider how many times you’ve turned something that has happened in your life into a story, used a story to illustrate a principle, or told a story to emphasize a point. We rely upon these narratives constantly, but we often forget to engage in storytelling when giving professional presentations. As a result, we weaken our connections with our audiences. But often, it’s challenging to share ourselves as storytellers — especially in professional settings.
Eager to find out the secrets of how to become a better presenter and engage your audience with storytelling? Consider these techniques:
1. Show, don’t tell.
Although nitty-gritty details are important, just “telling” facts isn’t the best way to engage an audience. Instead, use sensory descriptions — sights, sounds, and smells — to invite your audience members into the story instead of just telling them about it. This creates a more visceral presentation for your listeners, bringing them into the moment with you and, in turn, sharing the experience directly with them instead of just talking at them.
2. Remember the ‘why.’
Stories are powerful and transformative, but only if you allow them to paint a complete picture as hers did. In order to do this, you need to know the “why” of the story you’re sharing. What are you trying to tell the audience members? What do you want them to take away from your time with them?
The presenter mentioned earlier in the article had a goal: to help her audience understand the difference her organization could make. She could have spent her time sharing a plethora of statistics, but those numbers wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful or transformative as her story. She found a way to help us connect with her company’s purpose on a deeper level by sharing the “why.”
3. Resist the temptation to read aloud.
One of the biggest mistakes speakers make is reading from a script. Although children typically adore being read to, teen and adult audiences require more engagement. The less you rely on reading off a page, the more you’ll be able to connect physically and emotionally with your audience and create a richer experience. Put aside the cue cards in favor of making eye contact, gesturing with your hands, and conveying emotion through facial expressions.
4. Tether your speech to something personal.
Whenever possible, share yourself and your personality in your presentations and speeches. If you’re naturally funny, add humor. If you’re a golfer, use the sport as a metaphor for your message. Above all, offer personal experiences that tie back to the speech you’re giving.
When you share from experience, you invite everyone’s humanity to the table. And this changes the dynamics between you and your audience for the better. The more heartfelt and authentic you are while telling your personal story, the more memorable the presentation will be.
5. Allow yourself to get emotional.
It’s often thought that being emotional in professional settings is inappropriate. But emotions are the gateway to seeing another human being and the road they’ve walked. When listeners see a genuine tear in the corner of a keynote speaker’s eye, for example, they become riveted with the person’s presentation. Showing your feelings gives audience members permission to embrace their feelings, too.
Stories are an art form in and of themselves. And mastering the art of storytelling is one of the primary ways to become a better speaker. The more you allow stories to organically arise in your presentations — whether that’s in a five-minute speech to the Rotary Club about your newest product or a 40-minute TED-style talk — the more you can create richer and deeper experiences for your audiences.