The Number One Secret to Captivating Conversations and Memorable Messages

Would you like to be a captivating conversationalist?  Do you want people to remember you and your message?

Whether you are a manager trying to get buy-in from your team, a salesperson trying to make a sale, a teacher explaining a concept to your students, a health care professional trying to get a patient to follow instructions or a parent trying to get a teen to listen, there is one very powerful communication tool that will do all that and more:  a story.

As children, we loved to tell, listen and learn from stories, but somewhere along the path to adulthood, many of us came to believe that serious, grown-up people talk about information and facts.  Information and facts are important, but without a story to engage the imagination, they won’t stick.   My recall of high school history is a case in point.  History classes were sheer drudgery—lists of people, places and dates, memorized for a test and then largely forgotten.  If only it could have been taught as a series of stories!

Stories make your points memorable.  If people can remember your stories, they can remember your points.  In one of my favorite recent non-fiction books, Made to Stick:  Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, one of the authors, Chip Heath, tells about the power of the story to connect with memory.  In a class he teaches at Stanford, he gives the students statistics on property crime rates.  He then asks them to make 1-minute speeches for or against tougher crime laws.  The typical student cites 2.5 statistics.  Only 1 in 10 tells a story. After the presentations, he distracts the class by showing a 10-minute clip of a Monty Python movie.  When the clip is over, he asks the students what they remember about the presentations.  The results are dismal.  Only 1 out of every 20 people can recall a statistic from the presentations they heard.  However, when the speaker told a story about a personal experience with property crime, two out of three students remembered.

People will remember your stories and if they can remember your stories, they will remember your message.

Not only do stories make your message memorable, they make YOU memorable.  One of my favorite story tellers is my good friend, Peggy.  Peggy and I workout a few mornings a week at the local Anytime Fitness, mostly walking on the treadmill.   I really should say, mostly “talking” on the treadmill.  Our lips get more exercise than our legs.  Peggy enthralls me with stories of her children, her dogs, her employees and her mishaps.  Her tales have intrigue, hilarious dialogue and surprise endings.  An hour on the treadmill flies by when Peggy tells her stories.  I’m not the only one who remembers Peggy for her stories.  I’ve run into other people who tell me “Peggy stories.”  People remember her stories.  People remember Peggy.

Peggy may have a natural ability to tell stories, but anyone can learn to be more captivating and memorable through storytelling.

7 tips for storytelling:

1.  Use a storytelling format that leaves your listeners leaning forward.  A story usually only is interesting if there is CONFLICT.  Here is a standard story format:

(Main character) is in (Circumstance/setting) and needs to (Goal), but faces (obstacles/opponents) when (Climax/conflict at a high point) until (resolution—obstacle or opponents are overcome).

For example, in my blog post, The Integrity Balloon,  I open with a story where I am the main character, the circumstance is that I hit someone’s car and the obstacle I face is my own moral dilemma.  The climax is when I am trying to decide what to do (nobody saw me, should I ‘fess up?).  I saved the resolution until the end of the post.

2.  Don’t always make yourself the hero in a story.  People will think you are arrogant.  Some of the most effective and endearing stories are when the teller discloses some personal flaw (but don’t get uncomfortably personal).  You can also reveal your own character (which is a quick way to build trust and intimacy) in your stories where you learn a lesson from someone else or are a supporting character.

3.  Ditch the backstory.  Provide just enough background to make the story relevant or understandable.  Get to the conflict as quickly as possible.

4. Don’t provide all of the details.  Let your listeners fill in some of the details with their own imaginations.  As the 1999 World Champion of Public Speaking, Craig Valentine said at a recent seminar, “People buy-in to what they create.”

Note in the following opening story to my blog post, Talk to the Kid, that I do not describe “The Retard.”  I allow the reader (or listener) to make the picture in his or her own mind.  It doesn’t matter to the story if the picture is different; it only matters that the reader has his own mental picture.

“Bread. . .B. .Bread!” the boy grunted as he walked awkwardly from table to table in the cafeteria, begging for extra bread and stuffing his mouth full. I never did like the bread and butter “sandwiches” in elementary school, so I gladly handed mine over to Robbie. Actually, I didn’t even know his name was Robbie until later. We kids just called him “The Retard.”

5. Limit narration.  Use just enough narration to set up dialogue.  Dialogue is the heart of an engaging oral story.  Make your characters come alive through dialogue.  Below, I contrast a scene from a story I WROTE for a blog post, Listening from the Heart, to the same scene when I TOLD it.

Written version:

“But I asked for a Big Roast Beef Sandwich!” [my mother complained as she peered into the Arby’s bag].

“Mom, it IS the Big Roast Beef Sandwich,” [I said, rather confused].

“But I wanted the really big one,” [she scowled, holding the sandwich up for inspection].  “This is puny,” [she said as she stuffed the sandwich back in the bag, crumpled the bag and tossed it my way].

“Oh. . . .” [I grimaced, realizing the problem].  “The choices were Big, Bigger and Biggest.  I just got what you asked for.”

“But, that’s not what I MEANT!”

Oral version:

6.  Use humor, especially self-effacing humor.  People love it when you can make fun of yourself.  More humor tips.

7.  Be dramatic—the number one drama tool in storytelling:  the dramatic pause. Pause a couple of seconds before a climatic situation to heighten the feeling of anticipation.  “To be or not to be?”  (pause, pause)  “That is the question.”

To improve your storytelling ability, think “don’t tell, show.”  People will remember what they see when you say more than what you say.

So. . .what’s YOUR story?


About Diane Windingland
I speak for organizations that want their people to have better, more profitable conversations.

One Response to The Number One Secret to Captivating Conversations and Memorable Messages

  1. Pingback: Talking to People About Your Business: Business Storytelling « Small Talk, Big Results

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