Storytelling is a tradition as old as humanity itself. Stories unify us, drawing us out of our world and into that of someone else. We tell stories to connect, to remember, to entertain and, ultimately, to communicate. And because we are wired to engage, the better the story, the deeper the connection.
Kelly Stoetzel is the head of conferences at TED. In her former role as the media organization’s director of content, Stoetzel worked closely with speakers to cultivate and refine the ideas and content used in their TED talks. She says the backbone for many great presentations — including TED Talks, which are a unique genre of presentations — is storytelling.
While the approach may not be right for every presentation — or presenter — storytelling is a powerful tool for captivating, inspiring and engaging audiences. Read on to learn why it can be so effective and for some of Stoetzel’s top tips for using stories in presentations for maximum impact.
Stories will make you stay focused.
TED Talks are crafted to be up to 18 minutes long and are delivered live on stage by a single person. Stoetzel says the team at TED actively works with and supports speakers to make sure they center their talks on a single, clear idea. Of course, not all presentations revolve around just one idea, but the concept of staying focused is the same.
Stoetzel says crafting shorter talks like speakers do at TED can work for any style of presentation. It forces speakers to express their ideas in a short time span, helping to keep the audience engaged and the talk focused. Storytelling is a way for presenters to achieve that focus — and to focus audiences on what they want them to absorb, she says.
Because stories ignite our imaginations and spark creativity, we cannot idly listen to stories — it’s impossible. They awaken our minds and inspire us to act. Stories stick with us. “We are wired to love stories,” Stoetzel says. “We crave them.”
Stories you are passionate about are the only ones that will stick.
Storytelling is an effective tool for conveying ideas; it also captures and keeps the audience’s attention and plays an important role in helping a concept or idea to really sink in. When engaged in the story, the audience is more likely to remember the moral behind it. Or, in the case of many presentations, to remember and act upon the presentation’s key point, such as becoming a client or investing in a product.
However, to be truly engaging for an audience, the story must first mean something to the speaker. He or she must have a passion for sharing it.
To help speakers figure out what stories to include in their TED Talks, Stoetzel says she would ask them a series of questions. When a certain topic or point sparked excitement, Stoetzel would then work with the speakers to develop and incorporate engaging stories into their talks that could help convey their passion about those specific things to the audience.
Use stories to connect with the audience — not push your agenda.
When giving any presentation, the number-one thing to think about is who is in the room. An effective presentation is meant to provide value to the audience, rather than pushing what the speaker thinks the audience needs to hear
“It’s not about what you want to say to the audience,” Stoetzel says. “It’s what you want to leave them with.”
Again, using TED Talks as an example, Stoetzel relates how the speakers always have a specific message in mind and a target audience. When speakers know what they want to convey, and who they are speaking to, they can tailor the stories and other content in their talk for individual audiences.
Skilled speakers take care to choose stories that their audiences will relate to. For example, they would use different stories to connect with a group of surgeons than they would use to connect to a group of zookeepers.
Incorporating storytelling into presentations can help speakers demonstrate why they care about the content of their presentation — and why the audience should, too. Storytelling, when delivered thoughtfully and at the right moment, can help speakers make emotional and lasting connections with their audiences.
Clear and concise stories are key, especially in short presentations.
It can be really hard to write a short talk, especially when many speakers are in the lineup for longer presentations. In the context of TED Talks, Stoetzel says she has helped speakers address the time challenge by ensuring that the speakers’ points — and the stories they employ — are clear and concise. Too many stories or stories with not enough meat or content behind the overarching idea can have the negative effect of disengaging the audience. If a story doesn’t clearly support the idea, it won’t have a positive impact on the talk.
Stoetzel says she used to ask the speakers she would coach, “What is the idea that’s worth spreading?” That question, she explains, helps speakers choose only those stories that will clearly demonstrate the specific idea they want to spread. Anything that doesn’t support the main idea or feels like fluff is eliminated.
This process results in a presentation with clarity, delivered by a speaker uniquely qualified to share it.
Your storytelling strategy is established. Now, here’s how to beat stage fright.
Based on her experience coaching speakers from the start of an idea through to ushering them on stage, Stoetzel has collected more than a few tips for overcoming stage fright. Here’s some of her best advice:
- Everyone gets nervous! It’s okay. You can use your nerves for good.
- Purposeful breathing is very important, especially before walking on stage. Backstage is often where nerves are at their worst. So, learn to breathe calmly while you’re waiting to present.
- Once you take the stage, take a moment to plant your feet and connect with the audience. Make eye contact — it helps with nerves.
- Make sure you know the first few lines of your talk really well. That helps set your rhythm and gets you comfortable for the rest of the talk. Rehearsing over and over (and over and over) will help your talk flow most naturally.
If you’d like to see some examples of presentations that feature effective storytelling, Stoetzel recommends taking in some of her favorites: