Many speakers find storytelling challenging. New speakers often have a hard time finding topics to talk about because they think to themselves, “My life is boring and no one cares,” while more experienced speakers struggle to incorporate stories into their speeches. In episode 52 of Claim the Stage, Angela Lussier interviews Karen Friedman, an executive communication coach, syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of bestseller Shut Up and Say Something and the newly released Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lessons. Karen shares her tips and tricks for finding, and telling, better stories on stage.
Trick 1: Keep a notebook
Karen’s advice for speakers who have a hard time finding topics or finding stories that come from their life? Keep a notebook, and make observations of everything around you. “You can’t remember everything when it’s time to remember,” she says, “but all of a sudden something will hit you, and you’ll realize what story makes a point that you’d like to make.”
One day, Karen was in a train station, and an engineer went over to an escalator with a few people on it. He hit a button, and the escalator, which was going up, started going down. The people on the escalator started running in place because they were going the wrong way. Karen decided to write it in her notebook:
“I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of a column or a story, but when I got to my car I jotted it down, because I knew there was a message in there, I just didn’t know what it was.”
A few months later, Karen had a column due, but she had writer’s block. So, she took a look through her notebook and saw that she’d written down “escalator” and some points. She started writing the escalator story, and the meaning came to her: “Sometimes we have to take two steps backwards to take two steps forward.” The escalator she observed in the train station that day became an analogy for the message of Karen’s column.
Trick 2: Find value in your experiences
Karen also has some other advice for new speakers looking for stories. “What is it that you can say that only you can say?” she asks. Karen urges new speakers not to be intimidated when presenting to your boss or someone “eight steps ahead of you.” She reminds us,
“Your stories, your experience, your conversations, what you observe, is unique to you, and when you focus on that, you’re offering a unique perspective, even if you just started speaking yesterday.”
Trick 3: Know what your audience cares about
If you want to start finding better topics and stories right now, Karen wants you to ask yourself before a presentation, “Who is the audience? And what does that audience care about?” Focusing on what the audience cares about will help speakers give better speeches that are more relevant to their audience. For example, when talking to a group of supermarket managers, focus on how to keep customers coming back; talking to a group of people who run airports, focus on and use examples about the traveling public. And telling stories, creating an emotional connection using anecdotes and quick stories, makes the audience invested in what you’re saying.
Karen wants us to think about it like this:
“After a week, if they remember this much, they remember 10%…. What is the 10% that you want to leave people with? And every story, every anecdote, every piece of information, needs to back that up and support it.”
Karen once knew a master storyteller who inadvertently showed her the power and importance of the emotional connection. Steve, a retiree who frequented the same coffee shop as Karen for 15 years, would tell all kinds of stories, about his former career or his grandchildren or sports, to his buddies and Karen. She knew he’d worked in sales, and one day she asked him the secret to his success at sales. His immediate response was, “Ask for the order. Let me tell you a story.” Karen realized he was wrong; “It wasn’t the ask…. It was those magic words, ‘Let me tell you a story.’” Drawing people in, making an emotional connection to what your audience cares about, is the key to capturing the attention of your audience and winning them over.
Karen Friedman is full of more tips and tricks and hilarious stories that she shares during Episode 52 of Claim the Stage. To hear more of Karen’s advice and experiences, listen to the full episode.
Mira Kennedy is a current junior at UMass Amherst, studying English. She’s with the Speaker Sisterhood as an intern, where she proofreads, edits, and creates content for the Speaker Sisterhood website and marketing materials.