Once upon a time, there was a storyteller named Scheherazade. She was taken to the king as the latest in a long line of young women who were to serve as his concubine for one night only, and then be executed. She was, or so everyone thought, doomed.
Instead of begging for her life, or trying to explain to the king why his behaviour was so wrong, Scheherazade told a story. It was so well told, and so diverting, that the king kept her alive not only for a second night but for a thousand and one of them. Finally, he made her his queen.
Stories are powerful, and can often achieve ends that bald instruction alone cannot. This is why a story can be such a powerful tool for a public speaker. They can do a lot of heavy-lifting, but without seeming heavy themselves.
Audiences come to your presentation with their own opinions and preconceptions. If you try aggressively to change their minds, or make explicit your agenda too early, they may well switch off. Your job as a speaker is not to cajole or dictate but to suggest and persuade.
Stories are a great way to do this because they offer a clear framework for persuasion. They have a beginning, a middle and an end, a climax and a resolution. They make concepts concrete, too, grounding what might be a complicated thought at a human level.
The most powerful stories are personal ones. Don’ t be afraid of sharing something of yourself. If the story you tell relates to your personal experience in some way, it will also help you engage with your audience and build a rapport. Audiences respond more positively to speakers they feel connected to. Stories build connections.
Let’s think about the alternatives to storytelling for a moment. You could build an argument. You could march through some statistics, demonstrate the conclusions those numbers lead you to, and tell your audience that – therefore – they should act in a given way. In other words, you can tell them what to think and do.
Stories are softer. They show people how they might like to think and what they might like to do. In this way, though, they can be more persuasive and a lot more effective in actually achieving your goal. As a speaker, your job is to make your message memorable, so that your audience take it with them and think about it. Stories do that; graphs tend not to (though done right, a graph can be a story!).
Next time you’re tying to persuade an audience, then, don’t just give them a lecture. You may not be speaking to save your life like Scheherazade, but storytelling can still unlock for you the same persuasive power experienced by that crazy old king.