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Storytelling: How Musk and his peers prepare their speeches

Guest writer Miriam Rupp uses examples to show how a presentation can become an experience for its listeners.

02 May. 2016 Miriam Rupp

"I want to tell you three stories from my life. No big deal. Just three stories." This is how Steve Jobs began his famous speech at Stanford University. Nearly everyone who heard him has two things in common: They were inspired, and they will remember it for a long time. Whether you're speaking to Stanford graduates, at a conference or to your employees: Any leader who needs to make a speech in front of a room full of expectant listeners faces the challenge of achieving this same thing with their own audience. But the reality is often different. Rustling and murmurs, bored expressions and smartphones out after only a few minutes are just some possible indications that attention and interest in the presentation are lost. As Steve Jobs and many other successful speakers have shown, storytelling solutions are part of a well-stocked tool kit for keeping any speech in people's minds for longer.

Elon Musk is another great storyteller. (Photo: Heisenberg Media /, license: CC-BY)

The moral of the story

If listeners can forget everything except one single statement in the speech, which would this be? What is the high point of the story? What message should the audience be left with? Every speaker should ask herself these questions from the beginning, and present her own version of a "stay hungry, stay foolish" motto. The speech's dramatic arc and every other section work towards this statement, which is only clearly formulated as a denouement at the end. But even if we know the inspiring words we want to leave with our audience, how do we get them to listen to our speech from the very start?

Breaking the mold

"Thank you so much for the invitation... My name is... and today I want to talk to you about..." Twenty valuable seconds in which the audience gets exactly the same thing it hears from every other speaker. Anything but a curiosity-provoking appetizer. The key to attention is surprise. Not like a jack-in-the-box. Surprise means things that break free of predictable, learned patterns – like the standard speech. By jumping right into the story, for example, you already have a head start over many speakers. But with what kind of story?

A funny anecdote from your own life

Every story starts with the introduction of a protagonist who connects us to the tale. The success of telling a story in the first person has been proven many times over, by establishing a direct and personal connection with what will follow in the next few minutes. Personal stories are unique, they avoid clichés and are a source of surprise.

By not introducing yourself with the usual empty phrases, you give the audience a first glimpse and a sense of trust in this person they have in front of them. Even for a great expert, specialist or authority – what we can talk about most convincingly and what makes us especially authentic as speakers are our own experiences and memories. Particularly at the beginning, when you also need to make an emotional connection with the audience and "warm up" as a speaker, personal stories are valuable tools.

An eye to detail

To continue to draw in the audience as the speech continues, by getting them to think and feel along, you should create the most detailed images possible in their minds. Instead of a tree you can be more specific, and talk about a tree bending under the weight of its bright yellow, juicy lemons. The more senses are engaged, the deeper the image takes hold, because the senses of smell, taste, touch, and so on are activated in the brain, even if you only talk about these different characteristics.

Even when relating hard facts, speakers can do better when they include more detail. For example, if you say “on October 10, 2012” instead of “a couple of years ago,” you create more authenticity. This information also prompts many individual listeners in the audience to experience any of their own associations they may have with this date, so their memories are then connected with the information in the speech.

Storytelling trumps preaching

Many speakers unfortunately continue to use their speeches to lecture. They list what should be done and what shouldn't be done. Sure, they were invited as experts to share these insights with their unenlightened audience. But authority already meets with resistance and ignorance at school and towards parents, even when they might be right. Successful speakers put their audience on an equal footing, inspire them with positive messages and tell instead of teach. Storytelling is an important way to connect content with emotions and get listeners excited. You can see more fascinating videos on this topic at , for example.