Gathering of the Ghosts – January 22, 2024

3 Key Storytelling Strategies to Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

September 5, 2019

Whether you’re writing a speech or presentation yourself or working with a professional speechwriter, it’s important to craft a strong hook and identify key messaging that will resonate with your audience. At the recent Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, author Steven James — known for his highly engaging and entertaining talks on the craft of writing fiction, along with novels and nonfiction books — turned the lens on his strategies for commanding a room during public speaking events in the workshop “Storytelling Skills for Speakers: How to Present Like a Pro.” The presentation went into far greater detail than we’ve included here, but we were especially impressed by these key strategies that every public speaker should think about before developing a presentation or speech. 

“Try to come across as the mistake-maker, not the answer-giver.”

Have you ever been to one of those  corporate presentations in which the speaker basically spends the hour outlining their accomplishments? Or perhaps you’ve heard a politician falsely inflating their expertise or their “very good brain” (not that we’re referring to anyone in particular). These tend to be unbelievably dull or just plain embarrassing to watch.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but it can be helpful to lead with an account of a mistake you’ve made or a weakness you struggle with. If you’re giving a presentation or a speech, odds are that you have strong expertise in the subject you’re discussing. (One would hope so, anyway.) So how do you retain your credibility and share your knowledge while highlighting a mistake?

Make it into a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end — with a resolution or a lesson learned. “You don’t have a story until something goes wrong,” James said. Stories come from conflicts overcome, from problems faced and resolved. You learned Y by overcoming X struggle or roadblock, by making a mistake, by being confronted with a temptation. 

This strategy not only makes your message more interesting and plotted, but it also makes you a more relatable presenter and conveys your ability to learn and advance in the face of challenges. As anyone with experience in the job market knows, this also a good strategy for tackling that dreaded job interview question, “Tell me about a time when you made a mistake.”

“Teach toward curiosity.”

This tip is especially useful for when you’re giving a speech or presentation to your peers, or even people who know more than you do. James pointed out that he often teaches writing workshops to rooms full of fellow writers, some of whom have successful careers. Odds are, a lot of the core writing tips he can provide are things that experienced writers have figured out for themselves. 

The key to adding value for people whose expertise is on par or more advanced than your own is to present them with a surprising take on your message: In other words, “You can tell people what they already know, but tell it to them in a way they don’t already expect.”

You can make even the most experienced people rethink their approach to something they frequently do by giving them a new perspective on it through your own experiences.

One way to do this is to “show them the consequences of the opposite of your advice,” James advised. Suppose you’re giving a talk on parenting to a bunch of parents. They already know what it’s like dealing with a frustrated toddler, but if you share a way you made your kid’s meltdown exponentially worse, and then follow up with advice for approaching it in the opposite way, you may empower your audience to find a new way to resolve their own parenting challenges. This strategy also gives you an automatic story arc to work from. 

Try “bodystorming.”

So your speech has been written, but now you have to actually present it. To deliver a polished performance every time — and one that you can remember and reproduce thoroughly, James advises “bodystorming,” the physical equivalent of “brainstorming.” That is, walk through your main points, practicing the gestures and movements you will make as you speak. After all, public speaking is a performative act, and any performance requires practicing physical blocking. This not only helps you cement the physical performance in your mind, but also the words associated with each gesture. Explore timing different phrases and points differently, and work on your enunciation and clarity. This way, the story — even one written by a speechwriter or ghost, as is the case for many of our clients — becomes more fundamentally “you.” 

James presented a wealth of other excellent tips in his talk, but these three can get you started toward crafting a strong message, story arc, and delivery, no matter your audience.

Finding the right collaborator is another key to ensuring that your speech, presentation, or talk is the best it can be. Gotham Ghostwriters can connect you with a speechwriter or business communications pro who will help you convey your message in a powerful and engaging way. Tell us about your project below.


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