What's Your Story?

Biz Narrative Blog by Ruth Halpern

Observations and anecdotes about business narrative in the corporate world.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Public Speaking--Read Your Audience, Not Your Notes

Last night I had the honor of speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California, a historic institution dedicated to sharing knowledge and information on many subjects. It was a great honor to be there, and I had worked hard to prepare.

My session was on "Galvanize Your Colleagues with the Power of Storytelling," and it was very well-attended. Business people know that they need excellent communication skills in order to succeed, and knowing how to craft and deliver an effective story is a key tool. The crowd was engaged and curious, which was a delight.

My favorite part of any presentation is the Q&A, when I get to learn more about the questions that my ideas have inspired in other people. There were many interesting comments, but one in particular really stood out for me:

One woman asked whether there's a particular personality type (think Myers-Briggs or another personality profiling tool) that is especially adept at telling stories, or one for which it's harder to become a good storyteller?

What a great question! So many of us are fearful of public speaking, and more so if we think, "Oh, I'm not a good enough storyteller to stand up there and talk. It doesn't come naturally to me. I'm too dull/nervous/verbose/fill-in-the-blank."

As a business narrative coach and teacher, I believe that everyone of all personality types has a story to tell, and everyone can learn to tell it effectively. So much of the challenge in crafting a story is knowing what to include and what to leave out. What level of detail is appropriate? When is it OK to digress? How do you keep people engaged enough in the overall suspense of the story that they're willing to follow you into more technical material?

The best way to determine how much to say on each of your story points is audience awareness and responsiveness:

• Learn as much as possible about your audience BEFORE you speak to them.

• While you're talking, DO NOT read your PowerPoint, your script, your detailed notes.

• Do not rotely repeat a memorized program.

• Instead, read the audience. Are they looking at you? Are their faces confused/blank/disinterested? Are heads nodding because people are in enthusiastic agreement, or because they're on the verge of dozing off?

• Be prepared to adapt your story. If you see that you're losing people, move forward towards your conclusion--the happy ending, the call to action, the REASON you're speaking in the first place.

• Don't be afraid to ask questions. Draw your audience in by asking for a show of hands on a relevant topic. Don't answer for them. Allow silence in the room, time for people to think, digest, and respond.

No matter your personality type, when you can read and respond to your audience, and you know your material intimately, you can deliver a powerful, memorable business story. And sometimes, the best way to master your story and deliver it well is to work with an experienced story coach. Call me next time you have an important presentation to give, and you'll see what a difference it can make.