The Strength of a Story

Posted by on Aug 30, 2011 | No Comments

This article originally printed in the July 2011 issue of Toastmasters Magazine. Reprinted by permission of Toastmasters International.

My ship was on the reef, snapped in two like a dry stick; I was face down in the boxing ring and the referee was about to count “Ten.” In short, my speech was bombing – big time.

How could I, an experienced Toastmaster, flop so miserably? I had researched my topic – building business relationships – made sure it was relevant to the audience and practiced my delivery. But halfway through my speech to the local high school group, it was clear that I was not capturing their interest. It didn’t help that a junior heckler was competing with me for the audience’s attention.

To gather material for my presentation, I talked with executives at the aviation-technology company where I worked as a program manager. They offered suggestions from their experiences in the business world. Their ideas were terrific, and I wove them into relevant, humorous and interesting points – or so I thought. When the time came to deliver the 40-minute speech at the regional conference for the Future Business Leaders of America, it didn’t take long to see that the only thing between my teenage audience and lunch was me, and they’d just as soon go straight to lunch. My question-and-answer sessions are usually lively, and I had reserved 10 minutes at the end of this particular speech for Q&A. I could have reserved 10 seconds and still had time to spare.

Getting a Second Chance Usually when a performance bombs, the speaker doesn’t have a chance to try again anytime soon. They get to stew for weeks or even months about what they could have done better. However, I had a unique opportunity: I was scheduled to deliver the same speech to another group at the conference after lunch. This gave me an hour to revamp it so that the encore performance wasn’t a repeat disaster. Fortunately, I remembered something important: When it comes to capturing the attention of an audience, there is strength in a story .

Mention “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Trojan Horse” or “The Good Samaritan,” and people from cultures all around the world can repeat these millennia-old stories and the lessons they teach us. Any associated statistics, facts or papyrus flip charts associated with these tales have long been forgotten.

To recover from my pre-lunch speech flop, I decided to draw on two stories related to business relationships. I recalled a situation when I was in high school and had attended a national leadership course. One of the speakers was Paul Garber, who founded the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The next year I was in that city to visit the museum with a classmate from the leadership course. On a whim we called Mr. Garber to tell him how much we enjoyed his talk. He invited us to lunch in the Smithsonian staff dining room, where he told us stories of the early days of flight, including not-so-well-known anecdotes about the Wright Brothers.

I also drew on a story from a book I had recently read, You Call the Shots by Cameron Johnson. As an 8-year-old, Johnson had been a big fan of the movie Home Alone 2, much of which was filmed at New York’s Plaza Hotel, owned by Donald Trump. Johnson and his parents planned a stay at the Plaza, and he wrote a letter to Trump asking if he could see the hotel suite used in the movie. When he arrived at the hotel, he found that Trump had received his letter and arranged for him and his parents to stay in that very suite. Trump set him up with VIP treatment during his stay in New York City simply because he wrote a letter making a simple request.

When I delivered my post-lunch version of what was basically the same speech, I used both the Garber and Trump stories to emphasize how taking risks in business relationships can pay off. Unlike my earlier rendition, this talk inspired a lively Q&A session, captured the attention of the audience and even generated a few follow-up fan notes.

When you’re developing your speech, remember the strength of stories and follow these tips:

1 Collect stories.  Keep notes about experiences of yourself or others that contain important lessons. Sometimes I’ll use these anecdotes either as the center of a speech or an article, or to supplement the subject. A small pocket-size notebook, or the notes function on a smartphone, make it easy to save ideas.

2 Be relevant.  When you use a story, be certain that it applies to the subject at hand. Don’t be tempted to talk about something that doesn’t relate to the lesson. You may amuse your audience for the moment, but you’ll leave them scratching their heads as they struggle to make the connection.

3 Borrow from others.  Don’t be afraid to use the experiences of others. I often use a story told by Carl Pritchard about how the late Fred Rogers, host of the children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, graciously taught him how to learn about client needs. When I published a blog article on the subject, “Mister Rogers and Project Management,” it was picked up by an international blog and widely repeated. I was sure to give credit for the story to Carl Pritchard, who sent me a nice note on the posting.

Facts, statistics and other supporting material have their place in the written and spoken word. But wrapping them around a relevant story can help engage your audience and give your message staying power. Next time you’re called on to deliver a speech, remember the lesson I learned the hard way: There is strength in a story.

Dennis Brooke, ATMG, is a member of Auburn Morning Toastmasters Club in Auburn, Washington. Read more of his work and contact him at

Auburn Morning Toastmasters club meets at the Rainbow Cafe, 112 E Main St; Auburn, WA, Thursday mornings from 6:35am to 7:30am

1 Comment

  1. Connie@raise your eyes
    September 4, 2011

    Terrific reminder Dennis! And that’s what you do on this blog…tell wonderful stories that illustrate a point.