File this under things never to do.
This afternoon, I went to the (beautiful!) world headquarters of the Gallup organization here in DC to attend a presentation of the linkage they have found between religion and wellness. I should have known, if I thought about it ahead of time, that a presentation by a polling organization would be full of statistics, charts, and mind-numbing Powerpoint. And it certainly was. But what totally took me by surprise was when one of the presenters, a highly educated man with multiple advanced degrees, not only put all (and I mean: all!) of his complicated stats on Powerpoint; he put a story on Powerpoint as well. It was about his dad growing up in a small coal mining town in Yorkshire, and it was quite a good story — but as he told it, we saw the entire story bullet-pointed on the screen.
Don’t do that. Just don’t! Stories are meant to grab people’s attention and get them riveted to what you’re saying. Don’t spill the beans by putting the whole thing on Powerpoint so we know what you’re going to say before you say it. The point of a story is that we want to hear what happens. If it’s spelled out in front of us we don’t have to listen.
When telling a story, practice how you’re going to tell it so that you paint the right picture, and you get to the right “punch line” at the end. Stories are the one thing that I suggest people actually memorize, in order to have the desired effect. You want to make sure you set it up so people actually know they’re hearing a story. There has to be a person (or animal…) who faced a problem that he/she was able to solve, and the solution is what you save for the end, so you can then make your point based on the solution to the story.
When I was a child, my parents had the humor book “How to be a Jewish Mother; A Very Lovely Training Manual” by Dan Greenburg. From reading that book I actually learned how to tell stories. He has tongue-in-cheek exercise that illustrates this perfectly. You are to buy your son Marvin two shirts. The first day he wears one of them you are to say, in your well-practiced Jewish Mother voice: “The other one you didn’t like?”
Notice the word order in that sentence. Normally, you’d probably say, “You didn’t like the other one?” (Actually, if you were normal you probably wouldn’t say anything at all…) But that word order would lose the punch line. Although stories are longer than one-line jokes, the rule is the same: tell the story so the punch line is a surprise at the end. In other words, don’t Powerpoint your story!!!
And realize that people who work for polling organizations aren’t necessarily worried about being scintillating speakers. Sigh.