Why storytelling is such a powerful tool for speakers

The emotionally charged story recounted at the beginning Dr. Paul Zak’s film—of a terminally ill two-year-old named Ben and his father—offers a simple yet remarkable case study in how the human brain responds to effective storytelling.

As part of his study, Dr. Zak, a founding pioneer in the emerging field of neuroeconomics, closely monitored the neural activity of hundreds of people who viewed Ben’s story.

What he discovered is that even the simplest narrative, if it is highly engaging and follows the classic dramatic arc outlined by the German playwright Gustav Freytag, can evoke powerful empathic responses associated with specific neurochemicals, namely cortisol and oxytocin. Those brain responses, in turn, can translate readily into concrete action—in the case of Dr. Zak’s study subjects, generous donations to charity and even monetary gifts to fellow participants.

By contrast, stories that fail to follow the dramatic arc of rising action/climax/denouement—no matter how outwardly happy or pleasant those stories may be—elicit little if any emotional or chemical response, and correspond to a similar absence of action. Dr. Zak’s conclusions hold profound implications for the role of storytelling in a vast range of professional and public milieus.

[Quick public speaking tip] Data and story

hans_rossling_TEDI teach a lot about using stories. Stories are incredibly powerful speaking tools.

I coach clients to choose stories that support a point, that supplement data and that make data come alive.

But not always.

The image above is, of course, Hans Rossling presenting data. It comes from the Superflux blog And Hans has a wonderful ability to present data – but in this case to a TED audience who respond well to his particular style of data wrapping.

Sometimes an audience is different.

It expects the data, thinks in terms of data, has an inbuilt radar that rejects the stories behind it as irrelevant.

Sometimes, the data tells its own story. It builds engagement on its own because both presenter and audience know the story behind it. It is a language, a communication, all of its own.

For that audience, probably, stories will have their place, but the story placement will need to be very judiciously chosen, using criteria that are very different from those for an audience, say, that needs to have data wrapped up in story… or the visualisation that Hans Rossling has made his own!

Quick tip? … as always … know your audience… and for me as a coach – part of the coaching process it to remind clients to check in mentally with the culture in which they will be speaking.

[Inspiration] Inexpressible comfort

“Oh the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling
safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but
pouring them all right out, just as they are — chaff and grain together —
certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth
keeping, and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.…”
— Dinah Craik

Into the Danger Zone – Getting your Tom Cruise on

tom_cruise_dangerCloak yourself in the attitude and face the danger zone of public speaking.

Last night, at a presentation I gave on speaking your story, someone muttered “Yeah … public speaking – the greatest fear of all!” We all laughed and empathised, and then shared our stories – speaking in public but not “public speaking.”

This morning on the way to the supermarket, I heard “Highway to the Danger Zone” remembering the thrill of the music, and the movie and the Tom Cruise persona …

… and then thought of that comment last night – facing public speaking for some people is like walking into a danger zone – a combat zone – a place where they feel they may have to fight to survive, and maybe it would be better to turn and run – right now!!

So let’s get our Tom Cruise on.

Before this goes any further, let me say I don’t know anything about Tom Cruise as a person beyond what the gossip columns tell me. I have never (well almost never) seen him in a movie except as a sexy, strong, cocky individual, with an appealing soft side. And I am well aware that there are all sorts of movie techniques that enhance that – not least pumping music like Kenny Loggins’. And here’s an audio to remind you just what that feels like.

What was it about Tom Cruise? Ah yes “sexy, strong, cocky, with an appealing soft side”!!

He was good and he knew it. Yes he loved speed, but he was also a good pilot. Want to get your Tom Cruise on? Be good, get good. Read this blog. Read other blogs. Get coaching. Watch other speakers and TED talks. Practise. Capture the moments when you know you are good, when you are in flow speaking, when you feel like a rock star. Rinse and repeat and find out ways to increase those moments. But most importantly, remember what they felt like and take that feeling with you, whenever you speak. That is getting your Tom Cruise on.

If I were to define “cocky” I would think it would involve the word “confidence”, and something to do with the body language of confidence. Looking like you are confident, moving like you are confident, talking like you are confident, works in two ways. Firstly it makes you feel confident. Those who work with laughter know that it is therapeutic. Laughing when you feel least like laughing lifts a mood and stimulates all sorts of therapeutic physiological changes. Acting “cocky” when you are feeling least confident changes your attitude and stimulates all sorts of therapeutic changes in your behaviour and especially in your presentation style. The second way that acting as if we are confident works is that people see confidence. In The Tom Cruise movie persona, this is sexy, attractive. We want to feel that way too. In our speaking situations, it inspires trust in the audience. They see a person who is confident in their knowledge, confident that they can communicate with this audience, and confident enough to be authentic throughout the experience. Do I suggest you be cocky? Not if it’s not your style. But do “Get your Tom Cruise on” if it means behaving with confidence.

Another part of the “cocky” definition would have to be the aspect of fun. Here is a person enjoying what they are doing. The Top Gun fliers enjoyed the need for speed. When the feeling of fear, of danger, appears as it does for all speakers, get your Tom Cruise on. The adrenalin is running because you are taking on a challenge. It’s good. It’s fun. You will achieve. You will also learn. Challenge is where we find flow. Challenge is also where the greatest learning happens. Turn the fear of fear into excitement at doing something that is going to feel so good (and if it doesn’t there will be fabulous lessons to learn. Unlike the pilots you are not facing complete obliteration!)

Before I wrote this article, I went to Youtube and watched a version of “Highway to the Danger Zone” that features clips of the movie. I didn’t watch it all the way through. You can watch it here if you want.

What I did notice, though, was the number of times Tom Cruise is featured with other people. Though it feels like we speak alone when we are on a stage or in front of an audience, we rarely are. “Cocky” needs an audience to enjoy it, to share the fun of it. There will be moments when you can share the “rock star” in-flow speaking moments with your audience. Watch a comedian as he delivers a punch line. Watch Brene Brown as she makes a humourous point. There is a connection with the audience that asks “See what I did there?” – not always, but enough to enable you to take your audience into the experience with you. You are not alone. Nor are you alone as a speaker who is learning to be a Tom Cruise. There are competitors, if you are the competitive type. There are close friends and allies. All are having their successes and failures. You can learn from them. You can support them. They can support you. Some of the failures will be absolutely devastating. But those failures, as I wrote before, are often the greatest learning opportunities, and also the greatest opportunities to bond tightly with colleagues and friends.

And that is one of the places where the “appealing soft side” of the Tom Cruise persona comes in.

Do I want you, or me, for that matter to be “sexy, strong, cocky, with an appealing soft side”? Not if that’s not you already. It’s not me. We are each unique, with our own unique story to tell and to share. But if Getting Your Tom Cruise On can change your attitude as you go into the Danger Zone of public speaking, makes you a superstar speaker, or even just the very best you that you can be right there and then, I will be applauding wildly as the lights dim and you leave the stage.

Image source: http://bit.ly/1npG58c


How to be a Presentation God



We’ve all been there: an Excel spreadsheet smeared across a projector screen as someone on stage mumbles into a microphone while you sneakily check your email on your phone just to stay awake. It’s presentation hell, and we’ve all been there before. But it doesn’t have to be this way, especially when you’re the one delivering the presentation.

As founder of presentation design firm Ethos3, Scott Schwertly knows the difference between a great presentation and a great reason for an audience to take a nap. In How to Be a Presentation God, Schwertly begins to right the multitude of wrongs we have endured at the hands of dull speakers and poorly crafted presentations.


ISBN 978-0470915844
Format Hardcover
Publisher John Wiley and Sons Ltd
Published United Kingdom, 2011-03-08


Focuses on content, design, and delivery

Build, design, and deliver a fire-breathing, wing-flapping, roar-bellowing behemoth of a presentation. Unlike most presentation books that say the same things regarding presentation design and delivery (less is more, get rid of bullets and use images, emulate Steve Jobs, and so on), “How to Be a Presentation God” actually divulges step-by-step secrets for how to build, design, and deliver blockbuster presentations. By providing entertaining and clever presentation insights, veteran presenter Scott Schwertly gives you the in’s and out’s for presenting yourself, your business, and your cause with an easy-to-implement approach.

Have your audience praising the heavens and hanging on your every word. You’ll find proven and effective step-by-step secrets for delivering transcendent presentations with an easy-to-implement approach focused on engaging content, personal storytelling, and effective design elements—the holy trinity that leads to godly delivery.

As a presenter, your job is to move people, and anything less is merely wasted time. Presentations matter. We use them to convince others to do more, think differently, or invest in our ideas. Yet most of us can’t seem to muster the forethought, passion, and execution that our ideas deserve. If you’ve got a presentation to deliver, it’s probably important to you. So treat it that way.

How to Be a Presentation God gives you the tools you need to deliver when it matters and fulfill your own passion and vision for what can and should be. When people take time out of their day to sit and listen to you speak, not boring them to death is the least you can do. Packed with examples and lessons from great presenters—from Abraham Lincoln to Steve Jobs—this book shows you how to beat the boredom, flip your script, and start changing the world . . . one presentation at a time.

About the Author

SCOTT SCHWERTLY is founder of Ethos3 Communications, a presentation design and training firm with a client list that includes companies like Google and Pepsi, as well as successful speakers like Guy Kawasaki. And it’s no wonder, since Ethos3 placed first in the business category at SlideShare’s World’s Best Presentation contest. Learn more at www.ethos3.com.


Buy the book



[Public Speaking Quotation] Making it tingle


It’s such a lovely old-fashioned quote, isn’t it? “Whip with a switch” from the days of horses and horse carriages. And I would think that if you used a switch without leaves it would certainly tingle, though these days we shudder a little at the thought of beating the poor animal.

Nevertheless, writing as he was, in his time, Henry Ward has made a timeless point – waffling does not drive home searching truths.

And there’s another wonderful term “searching truths”. Ah! If all the points I make when I speak cause my audiences to search their beliefs and themselves, I would be very happy!

I wish you (and me) speaking experiences that drive us and our points home … in fine style!

[Quick speaking tip] What was it they said?

Yesterday you heard a fabulous speaker – wonderful, inspiring, eloquent – with so much to share. You walked away buzzing, happy, enthusiastic and you remarked what a fantastic presenter they were.

That was yesterday. Today. What do you remember of that presentation, that fabulous, wonderful, inspiring, eloquent presentation?

Do you remember the next step that you were inspired to take? Are you feeling different about something? Have you changed your behaviour? What do you remember?

Do you remember the clothes they wore? Do you remember the joke they told, or just that they were funny?

Three weeks later. What do you remember?

Chances are it will be one thing – one idea, one word, maybe one graphic, or maybe the person’s style.

No matter how much information the speaker gave you, chances are, still, that you will not remember much more than that one thing.

smileyChances are also that it will have been attached to an emotion … happy, sad, euphoric, devastated, frustrated, angry … and that’s why you remembered it.

Where will you be adding or creating emotion next time you speak?