No matter what you are speaking about, if you can start with a story you have a strong chance of capturing, and maintaining, audience attention.
To illustrate the power of stories, let’s look an important business and social skill, active listening.
Active listening is an essential skill. You see, most people treat “regular” listening as simply waiting to talk. You’ve probably found yourself in this place before. While someone is talking to you, telling you about the project they’re working on, complaining about their boss, or describing their weekend, you are thinking “What am I going to say when it’s my turn to talk?” You’re not listening to much of what the other person is saying, just focused on “When will it be my turn?”
Active listening involves asking questions. When you are listening actively you are trying to best to understand the other person and give them the chance to share their story in-depth. When you are doing active listening, you should not be thinking about what you are going to say next, how you are going to respond to someone, or what you are going to cook for dinner tomorrow evening. When you are active listening you should not be considering how you are going to solve the speaker’s problem.
Which brings me to my problem… I used to make my wife very, very angry, and I’m about to tell you why.
But first, there are few pieces of background information I need to give you.
First, I have an Information Technology background. I’m a software developer. When I’m presented with a problem I instantly go into solution-mode. Bring an issue to me and I’ll debug the living daylights out of it until a solution’s found.
Second, I’m a man. Being a man exacerbates the first issue. If you need a serial problem-solver then look no further!
So, I would come home from a day at work and my wife would say to me, “I had a problem today. This happened… “
I would listen to the problem, think about it, consider potential options, and say, “You should do this…”
And my wife would get really angry.
I could never understand why she got so angry. I thought to myself, “You came to me with a problem. I listened. I gave you a solution. Now it’s finished, let’s talk about something else.”
But she would get angry and it always had me stumped… Until I realized:
She didn’t want me to give her a solution. She wanted me to LISTEN to her.
If I had been ACTIVE listening our conversations would have been higher quality and I wouldn’t have had to worry about solutions. Additionally, I’d probably have gotten a better understanding of the issue she was having.
Anyway, this is a story I use when I am delivering presentations where I introduce the concept of active listening. The story is embellished, but it gets the point across about the what active listening is and how important it is to use it.
Now, active listening is a pretty boring topic… It’s a topic that most people assume they do well and so when it is introduced the likelihood is most of the audience switch off. When I tell this story the audience is always engaged, despite the mundane nature of the topic. The audience get so engaged that they often finish sentences for me. For example, when I say, “She didn’t want me to give her a solution. She wanted me to LISTEN to her” I can often stop after this “She didn’t want me to give her a solution. She…” and the audience will finish the sentence for me.
So, you’ve got a public speaking opportunity, you want the audience to pay attention, you want to put together a story to engage them from the get go. Here’s how you can do it:
1. Create an open loop at the beginning of your story
Start with an open loop. It is this which will keep your audience listening and engaged until the very end.
Humans have a natural tendency to want to resolve, or close, things which have been started. This includes stories that they hear. This is why novels become page-turners. Good books have just enough open loops that the reader just can’t seem to put it down. They want to keep reading to find out what happens and what eventually closes the open loops.
You don’t need to think too hard about this. Your open loop does not need to directly be related to your topic. It must allow you to tell some sort of story. It must let you resolve the story (close the loop) so that you can lead in to your main point.
In my active listening story, my open loop is the line “I used to make my wife very, very angry.” I promise to explain why, but don’t do it right away. The loop stays open and keep the audience listening. When you are reading the loop is closed quite quickly, but on stage things move slower. I pause more often and there is more time taken for reactions from the audience. The loop stays open longer and keeps the audience engaged longer. This engagement continues on even after the loop is closed.
2. Build your storyline
Your story should build up a picture. Your story should give enough background information and context that it naturally leads into the closer of the loop and then your topic.
In my active listening story, I followed this process:
Open the loop, “I used to make my wife very, very angry.”
Relevant context, “Who am I? What is my background?”
Situation, “What caused the problem/open loop?”
3. Close the loop with a lead in to your topic
The final part of the storyline is to close the loop and lead in to the speech topic. If you’ve presented a problem in your story then it would be good if you lead in to a solution to the problem.
In my active listening example, I lead in to the topic/solution of active listening with this line:
“She didn’t want me to give her a solution. She wanted me to LISTEN to her.”
At the this point the audience are now engaged. They are sold on the benefits of active listening and understand the issues with not doing it. They are primed and ready for my speech.
Had I gone straight into to how to do active listening without telling the audience the story they would be resistant and disengaged. By telling them a story I’ve put them in an open and accepting frame of mind.