How important is storytelling in relation to public spekaing?

I have read a large amount of ‘public speaking advice’ blogs, articles and books. And what conclusion do they all come to?? Use storytelling to influence an audience. 

What I have learned is: Storytelling creates images, images create emotions and emotions influence. 

I still wasn’t convinced; can a story really move an audience to take action or start a mass movement or rally the troops? 

The scientific proof of storytelling. 

To encourage more speakers to use the storytelling format, the experts explain how stories are understood by the oldest part of the brain – the amygdala, and how the amygdala is responsible for memory processing, decision-making and emotional reactions.

There is truth in this; emotional stories do impact an audience. But storytelling is more entertaining than it is persuasive. 

Expert persuasive speakers. 

The best persuasive speakers don’t use stories to influence their audience to take action, instead, they keep it simple. Simplicity influences.  

Where’s the proof? 

Look at the speaking style of 3 of the best public speakers:

Donald Trump.

Trump uses plain speech when persuading. 

Simple language speaks to the masses, whereas complex story plots and overused metaphors can be confusing.

Look at the wording in this example: 

‘I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me and I’ll build them very inexpensively’.

Nothing complex about the language used. In fact, a speechwriter would pull this line apart, but Trump used this line as part of a speech that led him to become the President of the United States. 

In the same speech, Trump went on to say: ‘we don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say China in a trade deal? I beat China all the time. All the time’

He didn’t create an emotional story telling the journey of a hero. Instead, he used rhetorical questions, repetition and basic language. 

The lesson here is to keep it simple. 

Sir Winston Churchill

Having a speech impediment, you would think, would hinder a politician’s chances of being known as the best public speaker of all time. But it didn’t, because Churchill had researched how to be persuasive when public speaking. 

Did Churchill use stories? 

Churchill would talk in rhythm, asking rhetorical questions and repeating key words and phrases:

‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: it is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there will be no survival.’

The use of repetition puts the thought, due to the idea being repeated again and again, into the audience’s mind.

‘We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air…’

There are 3 lessons here: use repetition, repetition, repetition. 

Dr Martin Luther King

Great speakers don’t simply tell a story, they show the story to the audience. 

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Again, as with all persuasive speakers we see the use of repetition:

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation… Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

King, Churchill and Trump all used a range of metaphors embedded within their speeches, but none of their most famous speeches was a story in its entirety. 

Metaphors don’t take an audience away from the message or the tone of their speeches, in fact, they enhance it. Look at the following metaphors from the “I have a dream” speech. 

  • The flames of withering injustice
  • A lonely island of poverty
  • The bank of justice…the vaults of opportunity
  • The quicksands of racial injustice
  • The solid rock of brotherhood

The problem with complex stories, detailed characters and random metaphors that are bolted on for good measure, is they don’t always make sense to the audience and are therefore forgotten or the message is misunderstood. 

King’s use of metaphors helped to build the emotional appeal of his key message. 

The lesson here is to use appropriate metaphors in line with the speech message. 

What can you learn from speakers who persuade? 

Storytelling is a tool for entertaining, whereas simple repetitive messages persuade. 

Project Charisma delivers engaging and interactive public speaking courses in Manchester, Greater Manchester and the North West.

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‘Is Storytelling Dead? The Rhetoric of Persuasive Speaking’

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Over the past 15 years, Chris has built up a reputation as a successful therapist, helping clients to overcome their fears and to achieve their goals. Chris empowers his clients to take control of their own life. Chris’s client led style of therapy is friendly, professional and confidential, and he has developed his own version of phobia therapy which he calls 'fast therapy', which has revolutionised the therapeutic landscape. This technique can allow massive changes in and during one of our sessions, no matter how big your blocks may be.
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