Question One: Does the Story Adequately Support the Message
No matter how great the story or the storyteller, the intentional speaker pursuing extraordinary communication examines each story every time they use one. Even if the speaker has used the story many times before, the story must be evaluated in the context of the new talk and the next audience. The first and primary question for evaluating a story being used as an illustration is, does the main message of the story match the main message, objective of the talk or presentation?
Good stories have multiple messages and can be used in a number of ways to illustrate a variety of messages. But great stories, though they have subplots and could be used in a number of ways, have one powerful primary message. How does a speaker determine this about a story?
Evaluating the story
The powerful primary message usually unfolds gradually, and then at some point is clearly articulated by a climactic event or statement. On occasion the message will be stated in some way at the beginning of the story and then the story will go back in time to tell how this grand message unfolded. More often the primary message is built character by character, event by event, moment by moment. When it is fully revealed it creates an “aha” or “oh” in the listener because it suddenly organizes and makes sense of all sorts of smaller pieces of the story. The main message or plot, interprets all other messages or subplots that the story might carry along.
The main message of a story impacts the listener emotionally. This is why the story is powerful. It does not only inform or entertain, the story moves the audience in some profound way. Evaluating the story’s emotional impact is the key to using the story most effectively to illustrate your message. And, because stories are often complex and multifaceted, the communicator pursuing excellence will survey a variety of individuals to confirm (or correct) their own experience of the story’s emotional impact. There will likely not be unanimity on this, but a clear majority is sufficient to proceed with using the story to illustrate your message.
When a story that carries the message
If one story is powerful enough to carry the entire message, this is called weaving. Because the story can carry the entire message, the speaker “weaves” the story throughout the presentation. But even weaving can happen in several different ways and requires careful analysis.
The story can be told at the beginning of a talk, like an introduction. It is the bait that engages the audience and convinces them that what you have to say is worth their attention. In another series we will deal with the extreme importance of exactly how you begin to tell such a story. For now we will focus on storytelling and evaluating and gauging the use of stories. Using a powerful story as an introduction to your talk captivates your audience and prepares them to hear the message you are about to give them. Then parts of the story can be referenced throughout the presentation reinforcing the content of the message with the concrete elements of the story. Thus, the term “weaving.”
Imagine a speaker is delivering a message on courage persuading young political activists to never give up. Using a story like Braveheart with its central character’s commitment to his cause, each time the speaker challenges the audience to have courage, the speaker will reference a event in the story where Braveheart demonstrated courage.
When a story unfolds
Another way a story can carry the entire message is when the story unfolds throughout the speech. A skillful communicator will keep the audience on the edge of their seats paying attention to important and more cerebral content as they wait for the rest of the story. This is a very powerful way to use a story when the centerpiece of the story parallels the objective of your speech. If the primary message of your talk or presentation is empowering your audience to overcome obstacles, then a story that tracks a particular person or group of people who successfully overcame obstacles can powerfully illustrate your message. Every time I tell parts of my father’s WWII POW survival story, people take the time to tell me that they are inspired by my father’s example and have hope that they, too, can overcome whatever obstacles they are facing.
In this scenario when one story carries the message of the presentation or talk, the speaker pursuing extraordinary communication will carefully evaluate exactly how the story parallels the main objective of the presentation. And then, whether it is told in its entirety at the beginning or weaved throughout the speech, the identified parallel will drive every aspect of the telling of the story. The communicator’s attention to detail, tone of voice, pace of speech, and volume will all highlight the parts of the story that parallels the main objective of the presentation whenever it is told or referred to.
Revisiting the story about abuse
Harkening back to the child abuse story I referenced last week, rather than emphasizing all the detail of the brutality of the abuse, that speaker could have detailed and highlighted the character of the therapist’s relationship that brought healing and redemption to the victim. With great emotion and intensity, using volume and pace, and tone, the speaker could have described the tenderness, the perseverance, and patience of the therapist’s relationship with the abused child. The interaction of the therapist with the child could have been described, even acted out, in such a way as to demonstrate the power of that relationship to heal. This is the part of the story that actually paralleled the objective of this communicator’s talk which was about the power of relationships. Highlighting the healing relationship of the story would have inspired and empowered the audience to go out with real tools that they could use in their own relationships to help heal and restore others. It would have helped accomplished the objective of the message. Evaluating and gauging a story like this takes time.
My own father’s story
I once addressed a city gathering where I was invited to tell my father’s WWII POW story. He was captured in the Philippine Islands and eventually sent to Japan. He survived the Bataan Death March, three concentration camps, transport on a Hell Ship, and forced labor in a Japanese copper mine. He had every reason to hate. But my father forgave and lived a life filled with grace. The objective of my talk was not just to TALK ABOUT my father. The objective was TO PERSUADE the audience that “grace is greater” than hate or anything else. Consequently, after each part of his story that I told, which was about how my father responded graciously to hatred, I said in a very clear, slow paced, and confident tone of voice, “Grace is greater.” In the 30 minute talk, I probably said this phrase10-15 times. And, each time I said it, i spoke with more conviction and intensity. Although my father’s story is incredible and could be overpowering, I evaluated his story in such a way that the conclusion of each part of the story was that grace trumped hatred. I am confident from the feedback I received that the majority of the audience did not go away only impressed with my dad’s story. They went away convinced that grace is greater. This is, by the way, how personal testimonials work. In another blog we will consider how to craft and deliver personal testimonies with maximum impact.
Using more than one story
Stories can also be powerful as they illustrate one or more points within your presentation. If you tell three different powerful stories that parallel three subpoints of your talk that are supporting your main idea or objective, then each story only needs to parallel the subpoint, not the main objective. This is what most speakers do. They tell several shorter stories in the communication of their message. A very good story teller can pull this off without distracting the audience from the message with so many different stories. The stories must still be carefully scrutinized to determine which parts of the story are most compelling and lead most effectively to the desired outcome of illustrating a major point of your talk. Determining which parts of the story to tell leads to the second question a great communicator will ask when evaluating and gauging a story for use in communication. Eliminating detail is probably one of the most difficult tasks for a communicator. Determining what parts of the story are essential will lead in this direction. If you want to move closer to extraordinary as a communicator, this is the direction to move in and the skill to develop. Next up? Determining what parts of the story are essential?