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The Magic of Storytelling


We all forget data, but we never forget stories. While recently watching America’s Got Talent, I noted how card wizard Dania Diaz shared information about her hometown of Venezuela.  Imagine how boring she would be if she only spurted facts. Instead, she intertwined magic and stories to create a compelling narrative.

We often hear about the power of storytelling, but we don’t know where to start…or even how to finish. Below is an excerpt from my book How to Speak Gooder (Fair warning: this is a long blog) to get you on the right path.

Stories don’t need to be momentous; they can come from everyday life. Any type of story works as long as you demonstrate a key lesson. Stories without a lesson are simply a waste of time.

Words of Lizdom: Data strays, but stories stay

Keep a List of Your Stories

Most of us forget our own stories. I recommend that you keep a running list of your stories open in a Word document, on your smartphone, or in Evernote to jot down a reminder. Even better, create a simple table with the story and then the lesson. You can then easily retrieve and insert them as needed to make a point.

4 Secrets to Great Story Telling

According to the expert in the field and author of Business Storytelling for Dummies, Dr. Karen Dietz claims that there are four key elements needed for any business story to get results. Most people will say you have to have a setting, characters, problem, and resolution. Yawn. Here are the new rules so try these on for size instead:

  1. Find out why the story moves you. You, as the storyteller, must have an emotional connection to the story. If you understand why the story moves you, you’ll be able to move your audience.

  2. Share a real experience, not a description. “I went to the store, I bought some bread, I came home and made a sandwich…” is NOT a story!! It’s a list of events — BORING! Share your personal experience and how you were feeling: “I woke up starving and wanted toast for breakfast. But when I opened the fridge, “Oh, no! No bread!” I high tailed it to the store…”

  3. Share the Tension – Every story must have a trouble/struggle to keep us on the edge of our seats. “But when I grabbed the bread and went to check out, I couldn’t find my wallet anywhere. OMG, my last $20 was in there!”

  4. Have A Key Message – Give us the take-away from the experience — and at the end, make the invitation. “Well, I learned about the care and feeding of customers….Maybe next time a customer….you’ll be able to take that opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, gain a loyal client, and spark awesome word-of-mouth marketing that builds your business for years to come.”

Techniques for Perfecting Your Stories

You need to “sell” your story to audience; they must hear it and relate to it. Often it means getting the wording and cadence just right. In essence, telling a story is similar to telling a joke: you must give enough information to paint the picture, but not so much information that it overwhelms.

In order to judge the length of a story, I typically tell it into a trusty digital recorder and note the time. If, for example, the story runs six minutes, I’ll try it again aiming for 4 minutes. It’s a delicate balance of getting the mix of time and detail just right.

Another great way to practice your story is to tell it at least five times during the next three days. Bring it up when you are at a networking event, casually weave it into a lunch conversation, or test it on your spouse after work. You’re looking to improve upon it each and every time. Be alert for when the story worked and when it bombed. Watch facial expressions and body language. Pay attention to the laughs too; you’ll want to allow time for your audience to chuckle so that you don’t step on the punchline!

I remember one day buying chocolate bars at IKEA and bringing them home to my son. He said, “Great Mom, do I have to put those together too?” I repeated the story and it didn’t get a laugh. Then, I changed the punch line to “Don’t tell me: an Allen wrench and assembly required.” And they laughed.

Try to paint a picture with your words: tell me about the sights, the sounds, the smells. Act out with your hands the height of a colleague, show me how you answer the phone or open a jar, et

And, here’s a critical rule: Never tell your audience how they will feel about a story.  You can’t say, for example, “here’s a funny story.” Instead tell the story and see if they laugh.

According to author Carmine Gallo, stories make up 65 to 72% of TED talks out of the 500 that he analyzed. And, since talks are considered the epitome of excellence, it’s clear that stories are the secret to stand out talks.

Words of Lizdom – Paint a Picture with Your Stories Walk the delicate balance of giving enough information so that the audience can visualize the moment, but not too much information so that it takes away from your message.

You are Never the Hero of Your Own Story

I remember listening to an ad executive recall his days of working with Steve Jobs at Apple. He talked about his brilliance, he shared how he saved the day, and he recalled almost single-handedly creating the stunning 1984 commercial. And, yet everyone at my table rolled their eyes in exasperation. His talk was all about him!

Even if you are sharing your story, your audience wants to absorb the benefit or result from your experience. Share what you learned and how they can learn too. To be clear, The Apprentice winner could have talked about “How to Win at Reality TV and In Business Too: 6 Insider Secrets of a Competitive Mindset.”

Great speakers recognize that you are never the hero of your own story. Why? It makes you look boastful while at the same time taking away from your message.  After all, it’s rather difficult to keep tooting your own horn without looking like a one-man brand.

Welcome to the world of The Fictional Truth

As my speaking clients often ask me, “what do I do if I am the hero of the story?” Welcome to the world of The Fictional Truth. This galaxy allows you to change characters or places so that someone else is the hero who saves the day. Note that I am not asking you to steal someone else’s story or invent a story, but to alter it a little just so that it doesn’t reek of vanity.

Sometimes you change a story so as to avoid offending someone. As an example, I tell audiences about my new house and suffering on a 104-degree day without the air conditioning working. Finally, the repairman shows up: a vertically challenged guy who determines the problem in less than 2 minutes. In a classic Bronx accent, he tells me that the reason that my air conditioning isn’t working is because I don’t’ have an air conditioner! But I counter that I have a thermostat on the wall which earns this response: Aha! just because you have the right tool doesn’t mean you have the right solution to the problem. As I bring the point of the story home, I share that I too am a Jewish New Yorker.  I’m able to mimic the character without offending my tribe. It’s an unwritten rule that we can make fun of ourselves, but not at others.

In truth, the repairman was Chinese, but the story isn’t funny this way. I tried it out on friends, and it was viewed as offensive. Voila! My repairman became Mr. Maury Cooperman!

Tell Universal Stories

A good goal of storytelling is “universality.” Talk about things that virtually anyone can relate to: how it still bothers you that your spouse doesn’t put the cap back on the toothpaste, for example.

In working with Dr. Annette Conway Marxen, I simply had her share that she was one of very few San Diego natives; this background was especially pertinent as she was speaking at one of the newest courthouses in our fair city and could share how she remembered her very first trip to court in 1973. It tied in her surroundings and her brand at the same time.

I remember listening to one of my clients in 2008 talk about his just-purchased second home in La Jolla, California. He mentioned how lovely it was going to be to “winter” in San Diego. He was confident that this story made him look good and successful.

Unfortunately, it was my job to tell him the raw truth: with the worst housing recession in over 50 years, most folks in southern California were just trying to keep one home let alone buy two! And, in these parts, “summer” and “winter” are nouns, not verbs!  Telling stories that your audience can’t relate to is self-serving; it only makes you feel good while making them feel bad.

As a branding expert, I relay the time in 1976 when I was determined to finally embrace the concept of becoming a California golden girl, just like all of my friends. I went up to the roof of my apartment armed with these essentials: a bottle of Sun In hair lightener, a small bottle of Johnson & Johnson baby oil, and a glistening silver reflector shield. I sprayed the hair product onto my bright red hair, I oiled my bright white skin, and I held the shield up to my face.  For 6 hours, I baked, I broiled, and I burned.

When I finally returned to our unit, my skin had already begun to blister; my hair was a putrid color of orange, and my face was so hot that my mom thought I was going to die. She opened a jar of Noxzema with its oddly chemical smell and soothingly applied it to my delicate skin; she then asked the key question of the moment: What was I thinking? I wailed in response that I was just trying to blend in like everybody else. Of course, my mother knew the beauty of branding right then: the goal of branding is to always stand out.

If we dissect this story, you’ll observe a good summary about storytelling:

  1. I am not the hero of my story; my mother is

  2. I use consumer brand names to connect with the audience

  3. I use alliterations to boost recall (ex: I baked, I broiled, and I burned.)

  4. I tell a universal story; most of us can relate to wanting to fit in or getting sunburned

  5. I give enough detail to make the story real without causing overwhelm

Words of Lizdom – Power of Stories Stories teach a lesson, but remember: you are never the hero of your own story. Allow someone else to swoop in to save the day or deliver the key point.

All of the Stories Don’t Have to Be Your Stories

Stop worrying that your stories have to be big, amazing and significant events; they don’t! In fact, all of the stories don’t even have to be yours. Retelling how Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile is inspirational and even teaches us a lesson in perseverance.

Your only caveat in telling other’s stories is to give credit where credit is due. If you share an anecdote from someone else’s life, let your audience know. Don’t steal other speakers’ stories! It frightens me how often I hear my own story about trying to sell Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, quick bake muffins coming out of someone else’s mouth!

Need help in speaking and storytelling? Give me a buzz!


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