Experience is the best teacher, and when learning the aims of an organization, it typically takes form of critical incidents. These are the stuff of stories and legends.
—Kouzes and Posner
Long after the participants have forgotten the topic of the presentation, even after they have forgotten the name of the presenter, they will remember a story. Therefore, Master Presenters have mastered the art of story construction and delivery. The perfect story not only makes the material memorable, but also brings it alive for the audience. Like the perfect picture, the perfect story captures the essence of what needs to be learned.
In this section we are going to examine how stories can be used in the following six ways:
Example, explanation, or illustration.
The perfect story can be a perfect introduction to your topic. For example, a university professor starts his ethics class with the following story:
At Duke University, there were four sophomores taking Organic Chemistry. They did so well on all the quizzes, midterms, labs, etc., that each had an A so far for the semester. These four friends were so confident that the weekend before finals, they decided to go up to the University of Virginia and party with some friends there. They had a great time—however, after all the hard partying, they slept all day Sunday and didn't make it back to Duke until early Monday morning.
Rather than taking the final then, they decided to find their professor after the final and explain to him why they missed it. They explained that they had gone to the University of Virginia for the weekend with the plan to come back in time to study, but, unfortunately, they had a flat tire on the way back, didn't have a spare, and couldn't get help for a long time. As a result, they missed the final. The professor thought it over and then agreed they could make up the final the following day. The guys were elated and relieved. They studied that night and went in the next day at the time the professor had told them. He placed them in separate rooms and handed each of them a test booklet, and told them to begin. They looked at the first problem, worth five points. It was something simple about free radical formation. "Cool," they thought at the same time, each one in his separate room, "this is going to be easy." Each finished the problem and then turned the page. On the second page was written: "For 95 points, which tire?"
The professor then goes on to lead a discussion about under what circumstances should we tell the truth, tell a partial truth, and not tell the truth at all. Did the professor get the students' attention? Was the story absolutely appropriate for this audience? Was it relevant to the topic? Of course, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes.
Another example of using a story as an introduction comes from Brad's leadership course. The story is used to illustrate that almost everything a leader does or doesn't do is a potential act of leadership. Brad uses an article written by Norman Augustine, CEO of Lockheed Martin, which chronicles how the U.S. defense industry decreased procurement by more than 60 percent since 1989 as a result of the end of the Cold War. Consequently, 15 major companies were downsized and merged into four. In the article, the author describes 12 essential steps that led Lockheed through this difficult time and on to phenomenal success. The following illustrates one of the aspects of his leadership:
Pay attention to symbols. For example, when we combined Lockheed's and Martin Marietta's headquarters in a building previously occupied by Martin Marietta, we moved everyone out and reassigned offices from scratch to avoid the impression that anyone had been bumped or that some people were more important than others. That action was critical from a social standpoint, and it is for that reason that we at Lockheed Martin try to treat acquisitions as mergers of equals. The attitude "we bought you" is a corporate cancer.
The question Brad then asks the participants is, "Was it worth the expense to move everyone out and then to move all the successful candidates back in again?" After very little discussion, the answer is always yes. He then asks the class, "Why?" After a short discussion, they always say that not only was this action the fairest way to do things, it also was symbolic of Augustine's fair approach and set the expectation that he would be fair in dealing with staff in the future. This allows Brad to add that in two-thirds of the cases, mergers have been found not to be cost effective due to the culture wars between the two organizations that are merging into one. Most organizations and their leaders do not pay enough attention to the process by which the merger comes about. This is most shortsighted because the process is the foundation upon which the new organization rests. Note that the Norman Augustine story is made up of only 85 words. It is not the number of words that gives the story its impact. It is the story itself. Although these two stories are very different, what they have in common is that Master Presenters are master storytellers. They know that well-crafted and well-told stories are one of the best ways to begin a presentation, because they capture the audience's attention and establish credibility.
Stories can also be used as icebreakers. The difference between an introduction to a presentation and an icebreaker is that an icebreaker is designed to help move the participant's attention from their thoughts outside of the session to what is going on inside the session. A story as an introduction, on the other hand, conveys the underlying message that the presenter intends to deliver. In this regard, the icebreaker is an invitation into the presentation. Icebreakers can be used at any time during a presentation, such as when the session begins, following lunch or a break, when the participants have their minds on a million other things. The icebreaker invites, beguiles, and entices the participants into the session. The message that an icebreaker gives is that this session will be either provocative; stimulating and fun; or insipid, dull, and boring.
For example, Master Presenter Terry Paulson uses the following story to illustrate the importance of treating people as you would like to be treated:
Not long ago I was flying to Los Angeles, where I was scheduled to speak at a conference. I was at Kennedy Airport in New York, standing in line to check my bags, and the guy in front of me was giving the baggage checker a difficult time. He was being terribly, obnoxiously abusive. I didn't say anything—the man was not only upset, he was big. After he moved away from the curb, I expressed my sympathy to the checker for the verbal bullying he had taken.
"Do people talk that way to you often?" I asked him.
"Oh, yeah. You get used to it…"
"Well, I don't think I'd get used to it."
"Don't worry…After all, the customer's always right."
"Well, I don't think he was right in this case," I said.
"Don't worry." The checker repeated. "I've already gotten even."
"What do you mean"…
"He's on his way to Chicago….but his bags are going to Japan."
The keys to a good story are that it must be yours and that it must be mostly true—by mostly true, we mean it can be embellished a bit, but must be based in fact.
Brad: I once heard a speaker who was obviously in trouble with his audience. The speech was flat and the audience members' faces reflected the flatness of the presentation. In truth they looked bored and I think were, like me, deciding if it would be too impolite to get up and leave. The speaker seemed to get the feedback from the audience but was not sure what to do with it. He then went through a litany of all of the bad things that had happened to him, finishing with his being kidnapped. The trouble was, the litany had nothing to do with his presentation, and his tale of being kidnapped rang patently untrue. Object lesson—be as genuine and congruent as you possibly can; the audience has built-in truth detectors.
David: There is a speakers' adage that says: "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story." This does not mean it's okay to lie and represent it as truth. But all good writers and all good speakers know the value of "artistic interpretation." That is, telling the story in the most effective way for maximum impact. Think of your "real" story as an artist's canvas. If the artist wishes to depict the scene exactly as it appears before him, he could take a photograph instead of using his brush. Yet, most people will agree that an artist's interpretation of a scene is what makes it compelling. Good speakers do the same: They take the real event and interpret it, enhance it, or edit it for the greatest impact.
Remember, this is not a license to lie. The audience will not excuse a blatant attempt to deceive. But no one will ever fault a speaker for taking a real event and telling it in the most effective way possible. This may mean you have to leave out a few lines of unnecessary dialogue, leave out a character or two, or compress the time frame in which the event happened. This is creative storytelling, and Master Presenters do it well.
Don't forget the transition or tie in. If there isn't a natural transition between your story and your topic, you will have to develop one. Brad started with the following story in his "Emotional Intelligence" presentation to a group of project managers. Note how the tie-in at the end of the story is used as a transition from the story to the subject of emotional intelligence.
John invited his mother over for dinner. During the meal, his mother couldn't help noticing how beautiful John's roommate was. She had long been suspicious of a relationship between John and his roommate, and this only made her more curious. Over the course of the evening, while watching the two interact, she started to wonder if there was more between John and the roommate than met the eye. Reading his mom's thoughts, John volunteered, "I know what you must be thinking, but I assure you, Julie and I are just roommates." About a week later, Julie came to John and said, "Ever since your mother came to dinner, I've been unable to find the beautiful silver gravy ladle. You don't suppose she took it, do you?" John said, "Well, I doubt it, but I'll write her a letter just to be sure." So he sat down and wrote a letter: Dear Mother, I'm not saying you did take a gravy ladle from my house, and I'm not saying you did not take a gravy ladle from my house, but the fact remains that it has been missing ever since you were here for dinner.
Several days later, John received a letter from his mother that read: Dear Son, I'm not saying that you do sleep with Julie, and I'm not saying that you do not, but the fact remains that if she were sleeping in her own bed, she would have found the gravy ladle by now.
Just as John's mother knew the right technique to seek information about John and Julie's relationship, project managers use emotional intelligence to bring their projects to fruition—and it is the subject of how a better understanding and application of emotional intelligence can help that we now turn our attention.
Even though the audience may have heard the story before, the transition is uniquely yours. That takes it from being a stand-alone joke to being a valuable presentation device.
Master Presenter Bill Gove says, "Public speaking is simply this: Make a point, tell a story." That's the essence of public speaking: Make a point, tell a story. He said that years after he will have spoken somewhere, someone will come up to him and say, "Bill, I still remember the story you told about…." He said that proves the power of the story as example. Anchor every point with an example, and make your examples through your stories.
David: An example I use in a variety of ways is this: "I have a nine-year-old son named Matthew. When he was 4, he learned how to spell his name as a result of playing computer games. As you may know, kids' games almost always ask the child to log in. For a long time I logged in for him, but one day I said, ‘No, it's time you do that for yourself, so if you want to play the game, you have to spell your name.’ So he learned to spell his name by hunting and pecking on the keyboard. A few days later, he was away from the computer and I asked him to spell his name for me. He said, ‘M-A-T-T-H-E-W-Enter."’
Without fail, this story always gets a laugh. So if for no other reason than to lighten the moment, it has great use. But I use it to illustrate a variety of other points depending on my need. For example, if I'm talking about the pervasiveness of computers in our culture, I use it. Or if I'm making a point about how we learn, I use it. Or if I'm making a point about the way people depend on contextual learning, I use it. That's the beauty of a good story—it can serve many purposes.
You can use stories to illustrate your most important points. Darren LaCroix, the 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking, delivers a powerful message on the importance of failing. He opens with the question: "Have you ever fallen flat on your face?" Then, he literally falls face down on stage. Still down, he delivers the next several lines of his speech, while audience members strain to see him. He then gets up and brushes himself off and launches into a powerful, personal story of a very large personal failure. He tells the story of how, right out of college, he bought a Subway sandwich franchise, and how over the next few months, he proceeded to turn his Subway restaurant into a "non-profit operation." It takes courage to stand on stage and tell of a personal failure. But Darren's speech is effective precisely because of his story. Master Presenters know that we can never be persuasive when we tell someone else's story. But we can be remarkably effective when we tell our own. As Mark Brown says, "Nobody but you can tell your story, and nobody can tell your story the way you can."
Start with a story that is a puzzle, an exceedingly difficult problem, and/or a moral dilemma that will take all of the audience's wisdom and intelligence to solve. One of the best stories that fits this description is the story of river blindness from the book The Leadership Moment. A synopsis of that story follows:
RESPONSIBLE TO WHOM
"The banks of the West African rivers…should provide ideal farmlands in an otherwise water-deprived region between the Sahara Desert to the north and the rain forests to the south. Instead, they are regions of human devastation. Entire communities have migrated to drier lands, abandoning their ancient villages and fertile valleys. River blindness is a scourge not only of human health but also of economic development." Almost all of the people become completely blind by early adulthood. Thus it is common that children guide their blind parents.
You are president and CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals. Your company has developed a cure for river blindness. The drug costs only three dollars per tablet. The only problem is that "The drug was needed only by people who couldn't afford it." Producing enough medication to eradicate the disease would cost $200 million, which does not include the cost of distributing the drug.
The Case for Donating the Drug to Western Africa. Your company has a history of being socially responsible. Your mission is both to help people and make a profit. No other company has developed a cure. This would certainly be a good public relations move. No other pharmaceutical company has ever made a donation of this size before. This action would also help all Merck employees develop pride in their company.
The Case for Not Donating the Drug to Western Africa. Firstly, $200 million is the amount of money required to bring a new drug, like Prozac or Viagra onto the market. It would be irresponsible to Merck's clients and shareholders not to develop a drug that would help both people and profits. Secondly, many organizations hold some of their retirement funds in Merck's stock. The company should not be donating a drug to eradicate river blindness at the expense of the company's shareholders' retirement, especially if the shareholders did not vote to spend their earnings in this manner. Thirdly, the task of distributing the drug is daunting. The World Health Organization has already declined taking on the task of helping to distribute the drug.
The participants have 15 minutes, first to work individually, and then to work in small groups to decide which course of action they are going to take (that is, to donate or not donate the drug to Western Africa) and to prepare a speech regarding their decision to stockholders at the annual meeting.
After the participants have given their presentations, we compare their solutions with how the real company president dealt with the situation in real life. The value of this type of case study is that it places the participants in a real leadership situation, asks them what they would do, and then lets them compare their answers with how the actual leader in the story led at that critical juncture. An additional benefit from this exercise is that the participants must present their solution in a manner that would be appropriate for the president of a large corporation, which underscores the relationship between leadership skills and presentations skills.
Mark Brown, the 1995 World Champion of Public Speaking, used a masterful metaphor in his World Championship speech. He used the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast as the framework for his message about ignorance, intolerance, and indifference. He first illustrated how these negative attributes were depicted in the animated movie. Then he smoothly shifted into a real-life parallel. He told a moving story of a beautiful television reporter who went undercover as an unkempt homeless person to illustrate how differently she was treated. He said, "This beauty took on a beastly appearance." Then as he described what the camera saw, he illustrated each of the negative attributes of ignorance, intolerance, and indifference in the reactions of those who passed by her. The story of the movie was played out in real life. And because of the power of his metaphor, the real-life story had so much more impact.
Metaphorical stories capture the theme of the presentation, making it real, concrete, and tangible. These stories reach out and grab your audience's attention. Harvard's John Kotter, one of the world's foremost experts on leadership and change, artfully uses metaphor in the following story:
In 1983, a new CEO put the company through a major transformation process that was successful. By 1988, the old procedure manuals were no longer used, replaced by far fewer rules and a set of customer-first practices that made more sense in the 1980s. But the CEO realized that the old manuals, while not on people's desks, were still very much in the corporate culture. So here is what he did.
When he took the stage for his keynote address at the annual management meeting, he had three of his officers stack the old manuals on a table next to the lectern. In his speech he said something like this:
"These books served us well for many years. They codified wisdom and experience developed over decades and made that available to all of us. I'm sure that many thousands of our customers benefited enormously because of these procedures.
"In the past few decades, our industry has changed in some important ways. Where there once were only two major competitors, we now have six. Where a new generation of products used to be delivered once every two decades, the time has now been cut to nearly five years. Where once customers were delighted if they could receive help from us in 48 hours, they now expect service within the course of an eight-hour shift.
"In this new context, our wonderful old books began to show their age—they weren't serving customers as well. They didn't help us adapt well to changing conditions. They slowed us down…and it began to show up in our financials.
"…we decided that we had to do something about this—not only because the economic results were looking poor but even more so because we were no longer doing what we wanted to do and had done so well for so long: serve our customers' needs in a truly outstanding way. We reexamined their requirements and in the last three years have changed dozens of practices to meet those needs. And in the process, we set these [books] aside.
"…I'm taking time to tell you all this today for a number of reasons. I know that there are a few of you in this room, each new to the company in the last couple of years, who think the books over here are a joke, bureaucratic mindlessness in the extreme. Well, I want you to know that they served this company well for many years. I also know that there are people in this room who hate to see the books go. You might not admit it—the logical case for what we've done is far too compelling—but at some gut level, you feel that way. I want you to join with me today in saying good-bye. The books are like an old friend who's died after living a good life. We need to acknowledge his contribution to our lives and move on."
For many of the people who read this story, their first reaction is to burn the books. The wisdom in this story is that it acknowledges that past procedures worked, and that we should honor them. It helps us move away from thinking that today's technique is good, and yesterday's is bad. This becomes a problem because what is new today will be old and hence bad tomorrow, and this lessens or devalues the impact of anything that appears to be new. In fact, many employees then start to view the newest change as "the flavor of the month."
By eulogizing the books, the speaker in the story acknowledges both their usefulness at the time they were developed and also that it is time to lay a good friend to rest and move on. The metaphor of paying our respect to a good friend who deserves our respect and has passed on is a perfect way not only to acknowledge the respect that the employees had for their manuals, but also to acknowledge the manual's passing.
Stories can also be used as a powerful way to conclude your presentation. For example, Albert Mensah, a native of Ghana, delivers a powerful speech in which he speaks on the theme, "Underneath, we're all the same." He walks on stage wearing a denka, a ceremonial African robe. He tells his story of how, as an African immigrant, he was treated differently when he first arrived in the United States. He speaks of being treated as an outsider—a troublemaker—because he looked, spoke, and acted so differently. He proceeds to illustrate how damaging such thinking can be. Then, at the climax of his speech, he rips off the denka, reveals a beautifully tailored suit and tie and says with a knockout punch: "Because underneath, we're all the same." It's a powerful illustration—memorable and moving.
Another outstanding speaker, Sandra Zeigler, tells the story of Harriett Tubman, a woman who helped U.S. Civil War slaves escape to freedom. After telling Harriett's story, Sandra shifts the focus to the audience for a powerful conclusion. She says:
This morning, if you are standing at a place in your life where two roads are diverging, you are standing where Harriett Tubman, a black, disabled, illiterate, penniless woman born in bondage, once stood. Take the less traveled road of freedom, instead of the well-worn path to surrender. And when you arrive at your destination, and you will arrive, go back. Go back to your cities and your neighborhoods and teach, train, and inspire others to achieve what you have accomplished. [She pauses.] Don't stop at personal success. [She pauses.] As a tribute to Harriett Tubman, become one of the great ones. The great ones go back.
Brad often ends his presentation on the Seven Strategies of Master Negotiators with the following story from the book Getting to Yes:
In 1964 an American father and his twelve-year-old son were enjoying a beautiful Saturday in Hyde Park, London, playing catch with a Frisbee. Few in England had seen a Frisbee at that time and a small group of strollers gathered to watch this strange sport. Finally, one Homburg-clad Britisher came over to the father: "Sorry to bother you. Been watching you a quarter of an hour. Who's winning?"
In most instances to ask a negotiator, "Who's winning?" is as inappropriate as to ask who's winning a marriage. If you ask that question about your marriage, you have already lost the more important negotiation—the one about what kind of game to play, about the way you deal with each other and your shared and differing interests.
Brad then adds the following ending as a call to action:
It is my hope that this presentation is a beginning for all of us, me included, to negotiate more effectively, in our personal lives, in our professional lives, in our states/provinces, nationally, and indeed, as the events of September 11, 2001, have so aptly pointed out, internationally. In those efforts, I wish you God's speed.
This is not only a great story to end the presentation on, it also emphasizes the fact that the participants will have ample opportunity to practice the skills that they have just learned in the days ahead, and it challenges them to do so both in their personal and professional lives.
Kouzes, James, and Barry Posner. Credibility. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993, p. 197.
Augustine, Norman R. "Reshaping an industry: Lockheed Martin's survival story." Harvard Business Review: 1997, May-June.
Paulson, Terry. They Shoot Managers Don't They? Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1991.
This case study was adapted from Michael Useem's The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons For Us All. New York: Random House, 1998.
Kotter, John. Leading Change. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 1996, pp. 152–53.
Fisher, Roger, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York: Penguin Books, 1991, p. 148.