Public Speaking Success: Three Pitfalls to Avoid when Adding Stories to Your Speech

StorytellingUsing stories in speeches comes natural to many of us. It’s a fun way to illustrate a point in layman’s terms, helps you develop rapport with your audience and makes you human in the audience’s eyes. Stories make great icebreakers, good jokes and get people to think. So should you load up your speech with stories and call it day? Not so fast – keep in mind that in the world of public speaking, “too much of a good thing” is a reality that many speakers experience.

Like most people, I’ve seen my share of speeches and seen all sorts of stories attached to speeches. I’ve found three basic mistakes that people make within their speeches related to storytelling that I’d like to share:

Mistake 1: Using Inappropriate Stories:

I know what you’re thinking – no sex, religion or politics within speeches, right? Well, that’s part of it. Stories can be inappropriate for a variety of reasons in addition to them being risqué. Here are some of the more common reasons stories are inappropriate:

  • The story is too long for the speech (or is too long for making a minor point).
  • Understanding the story requires knowledge and information that the audience doesn’t have – this is especially true for humorous stories.
  • The story contains language or humor that is inappropriate for the audience (i.e. stories with mature themes when children are present).
  • The story is offensive to the audience.
  • The story has a point that conflicts with the key beliefs of the audience.
  • The story doesn’t fit in the speech – this happens when it seems like the speaker re-worked the speech just to fit in a particular story.
  • The story’s message conflicts with other points of the speech.
  • The story disrupts the flow of the speech.
  • The story is confusing or hard to follow.
  • The story doesn’t illustrate the point well.

The good thing about making this mistake is that it’s very obvious to others (unfortunately, it’s not always obvious to us). So if you practice your speech in front of a mock audience, there’s a good chance that someone will catch this. If you’re not able to work with a mock audience, then simply use the list above as a checklist and run through it with your story. Just being aware of potential mistakes is often enough to prevent them.

Mistake 2: Using Too Many Stories:

A mistake that’s especially common with new speakers is to use too many stories in their speeches. It’s easier to use stories that we’re familiar with than to present technical information. However, some speakers forget that your goal as a speaker is to transfer information to your audience and you need to present that information in a direct manner.

If your speech is meant to be entertaining, then it’s okay to use a lot of stories. But in all other cases, explain the technical details and then tell your story to drive the point home. Audiences can become frustrated when they feel like they need to read between the lines to take useful information away from your speech.

Also, as a rule of thumb, only use one story to make a point. Building your case with more and more evidence to prove your point is great in the courtroom, but doing so during your speech will cause your audience to mutter “yes, we get it!” under their breath as they clench their teeth.

Mistake 3: Getting Too Personal:

You may be familiar with the phrase “TMI” – Too Much Information. Many speakers give into the temptation of using the podium as their personal soapbox or as a group therapy session. This can be a very hard habit to break – I’d be lying to you if I said I was never guilty of this. Although I have stopped doing this in my speeches, I still catch myself slipping every now and then with some of my blog posts or within my e-zine.

If you find that you do this, it’s relatively easy to fix with a little bit of practice. First, keep in mind that the purpose of your speech is for the audience’s benefit – not yours. Remove all stories from your speech that don’t benefit the audience. If you find yourself struggling to figure out if a story benefits your audience, then ask yourself what you hope the audience will get from it and see if it matches the goal of your speech. If you find that the reason you’re including a story is so you can brag, get the audience to feel bad for you or get you applause, then leave it out.

I found that I personally fell victim to this whenever I’d decide while I was giving my speech to add in or substitute a story. I wouldn’t ask myself those important questions about the story and nine out of ten times, I would have been better off not including the story. While you’re giving you speech is a horrible time to make decisions about what should be included in your speech. Sometimes, you’re safer by sticking to your original script.

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5 thoughts on “Public Speaking Success: Three Pitfalls to Avoid when Adding Stories to Your Speech

  1. Michael Cortes

    This is great advise. I also believe it is one of the reasons that using stories during professional presentations gets a bad rap. When people do as you describe, it appears to the audience that the whole concept of using stories is a bad idea.

    That’s too bad. Used wisely, stories are great anchors in a professional presentation.

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