As a journalist and filmmaker by education – as well as an avid reader by avocation – I like nothing better than a great story. Increasingly, executives across a wide range of industries are incorporating personal stories into their speeches as a way to illustrate key points. However, all too often, one or more missing essentials prevent these stories from really resonating with audiences. Here’s a quick review of H.O.W. to tell a good story.
Protagonist is the fancy word for hero, and every story needs one. If you are the executive making a speech, the hero may well be you. Or, alternatively, you may be relating a story involving someone else – a coworker, friend, relative. Regardless, you need a main character around whom to build your story. An example to illustrate:
“I had traveled thousands of miles, and I was so tired. There I stood, suitcase in one hand, city map in the other. I looked up, way up – at the awe-inspiring Eiffel Tower…”
So you have your hero, but the hero must have a reason to be heroic. Without conflict – without something standing in the way of what the hero wants or needs to accomplish – you have no story. Depending on the circumstances, the conflict might be a physical obstacle, such as a menacing person or an injury, or a mental challenge, such as a phobia. What complicates your story, making your hero have to work harder than normal?
“I set down my suitcase and wiped sweat. I had vowed to myself that – if I ever made it to the City of Light – I would ascend the tower and take in the view that so many before me have enjoyed. There was only one problem: my deathly fear of heights…”
Given the opportunity, your hero proves heroic by confronting that which is standing in the way of what needs to be done. This moment of accomplishment is what your audience has been anticipating. Give them that moment of joy. Deprive them of the satisfaction of an obstacle overcome at your own peril.
“The little old lady in the elevator grinned up at me. ‘First time to top?’ she asked in broken English. ‘How can you tell?’ I replied. ‘You wring hands so hard,’ she said with a smile. It was true. I was sweating like a track star, but I would soon be at the top of the tower – a lifelong dream realized. That was the day I learned the true power of perseverance.”
Remember, your audience was raised on stories just as you were, and they still love hearing a good one. Give them H.O.W. – a hero, an obstacle, and a win – and they will not only keep listening, they will invest in your story.
Want more? Additional resources:
Lead With a Story – A guide to crafting business narratives that captivate, convince and inspire, by Paul Smith
Mike Birbiglia – check out any of his comedy specials for a master class on telling engaging stories