Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What Came First, the Story or the Point?

"I have this great story - I just have to find a way to tell it!"

There are many phrases that make me internally cringe when I hear them from a speaking client - and this is in my Top 5 - it's right up there with 'I know you suggested I do this, but my MOM says..." Invariable, the story has nothing to do with the speech they are trying to build, but they are determined to shoehorn it in, because it's cute, funny, or personally important, but not pertinent in anyway to what they are already trying to say in their speaking life.

Make no mistake - I love stories. Stories are crucial for connecting with the audiences. Stories will be what people remember. Stories are, oh, forget it, I have no idea what metaphor to use this morning. Suffice it to say, stories are important, and I wouldn't want to listen to a speaker who didn't use them.

But no matter how great your story is, if it doesn't match the point you're trying to get across, it's nothing more than a diversion, and in the worst cases, can completely derail your speech.

Because most of us love to hear and tell stories, this is an easy trap to fall into. When we're just learning to speak, we're told - "Just get up there and tell a story".

Toastmasters, much as I love them, fall prey to this easily, as they are encouraged to come up with a different speech every month, which puts them into a position of starting their speech with a story, and then, if they're really good at what they do, finding the point within the story to provoke their audience.

When you're learning, this is a fine approach.

When you're ready to get out into the real world, it's a trap. You can't get in front of an audience and just string together a few stories and hope to get by and speaking skills and charm. They might say they loved it, and they might have actually enjoyed the presentation, but it doesn't mean anything you've said, or anything about YOU, will stick with them beyond the next 30 minutes.

Building a speech for the real world means having a real point to share. Granted, it may start with a story you want to tell - surviving abuse, climbing Everest, passing the 400th level of Candy Crush - but ultimately it must have a takeaway point - a spine on which the muscle of your stories can always attach.

Which means that the 'story you just have to find a way to tell' may not work. I don't care how funny it is. I don't care if it makes me cry. All your audience really cares about is 'does this matter' - otherwise known as, 'why is this important to me, or the reason I'm here?'

Be on the lookout, always, for stories. File them away. Look for points within them. Identify which audiences they might resonate with, and consider alternate speeches you might create for them. Just don't marry yourself to the idea of using them just because you love to tell them.

If you're building a keynote - start with your point. Then support the point with stories. Even if your next speech is 'Organize Your Speech' in the basic Toastmasters manual, consider starting with your point, and building the speech around it, finding supporting material from your life and the world around you - it'll be a tougher exercise than simply ranting about your day, but you, and your audience, will get more out of it when all is said and done.

And even if you are sitting there saying - 'But Rich, I have a great story to tell' - STOP. Tell me why you want to tell it, and more importantly why I need to hear it. Does it support the message you're already delivering? Does it have a point that is important enough to build a new speech around? Or is it simply an indulgence, hanging there, tempting you to take your audience on a detour from which they may never return?

Find your point, then your story, and you'll be well on your way as you Speak....and Deliver!


  1. Love this Rich! Stories are everywhere, but the trick is making them meaningful to other people. I have this really funny story but I am still searching for a great take away. It's they type of story that I can hold court at a pub and have people rolling with laughter -but find the bigger meaning escapes me!

  2. Wonderful post. Written very well and differently.



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