Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Speakers: Tell them YOUR story

Storytelling is a great way to engage an audience, but you need to be careful about the stories you tell. I was reminded of this today when an email arrived from a client I've been coaching on speech construction and delivery. She recounted a visit to a political event last week when two speakers told the lighthouse story. A few years ago, I was working in the US with Stephen Covey, and he opened his speech with the lighthouse story too. In fact, I must have heard the story directly, or second hand hundreds of times.

There are a number of stories which fall into this category. They include:

1) The lighthouse story, where a night-time conversation between a US warship and another "vessel" builds up, with each asking the other to change course. It ends with the line "We're a lighthouse - your call"

2) The starfish story, where a man meets a boy throwing beached starfish back into the sea. He say "With so many starfish, how can you hope to make a difference?" The boy replies "It made a difference to that one". Even Barack Obama has been caught telling that yarn, attributing it (wrongly) to an original experience of Ed Kennedy.

3) The boiling frog story, where we're told that a frog placed in boiling water will jump out, but one placed in cold water that is then boiled will die, because it doesn't notice the change. Charles Handy used to tell that one many years ago.

There are many more - the three bricklayers, the shoe salesman in Africa, the lipstick on the mirror, etc, etc. They may have happened once, but they won't have happened to the storyteller. What's worse, they are used so often, they have lost their impact.

Professional speakers don't use these types of stories. They use their own, because they won't have been heard before, they are easy to tell, and they can still make a strong point, For example, I talk about founding a pirate radio station in 1967, playing a Glaswegian shopkeeper on Italian TV, and being the holder of an unbreakable TV Guinness world record. No-one else can tell those stories (and if they do, I will be after them).

So if you use stories in your speeches, as I hope you do, use your own. It's the professional thing to do.


Suzan St Maur said...

Gosh, that lighthouse story has been around for years! Most of my stories are humorous and to be honest with all the crazy things that have happened to me over the years, I don't need to use "ready-made" ones... Also, speaking as a scriptwriter, I know it's very easy to use the basis of "standard" jokes and stories and personalize that to a speaker's own circumstances. If you're going to use off-the-shelf humor and stories, doing that at least gives it a more realistic feel.

Alan Stevens said...


Thank you for your comments. I like to look for the humour in my own experience and that of my clients, but for some people customised humour may be appropriate.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alan, for pointing that out! I really heard those lighthouse and starfish stories too many times.

I agree that as a professional speaker, it is always best to use your own stories. Sometimes you come across people who are copycats of Tony Robbins, T Harv Eker or Tom Peters. The worst thing is, they literally use the same stories as if it happened to them. In-authenticity rules apparently!

Tip: I always tell the stories to my friends first, before I use them on stage. This way I get honest feedback and feel if these are really good enough to share with the world.

Gihan Perera said...

Alan, many years ago when I was visiting the UK for a PSA conference, a speaker told me he had been to an event where somebody used the "Worker Building a Cathedral" story (another all-too-common story), but had even gone as far as saying it happened to him (i.e. "A funny thing happened on the way to the hotel today ...").

That gave me a great idea. Next time I tell the lighthouse story, I'll start it like this: "Many years ago, when I was Admiral of the Fleet ...". Problem solved!

Debbie Leven said...

I think that some people fall back on those 'ready made' stories because they lack confidence or simply feel time pressured in preparation. It's the stories in a presentation that people remember because they paint a visual picture. Original content is, as you say, king.

Simon Bucknall said...

Nice post - and spot on! Especially important when it's the story which differentiates. Very hard (if not impossible) to come up with an entirely 'new message' - the stickiness and originality most often comes from the way in which it's packaged.