5 Ways Storytelling Can Kill Your Message

Stories should relay a message and engage audiences, but sometimes they just fall flat. Learn why stories can fail and how you can make your stories effective every time.
September 01, 2014

We tell stories because they paint pictures in people’s minds. When we can engage an audience—whether it’s one person or 2,500—and inspire them to think creatively, they become active participants in our performance.

Stories make our messages more memorable and persuasive, and they’re an essential element of public speaking.

But not every story works and sometimes a story falls flat, leaving the speaker wondering, "What went wrong?" Take a look at these five common mistakes storytellers make and eliminate them from your next speech.

1. All you have is a story. Whether a speaker isn't properly focused or is simply looking to stretch a speech, we’ve all experienced the flop that happens when a rambling story makes up the core of a speech. Even the most entertaining of stories is only effective if it’s used in support of some coherent, legitimate point.

Stories should support a message, rather than be the entirety of the message. When you’re preparing a speech, ask yourself what function each of your stories serves. If you can’t answer that question, then the story may not belong in your speech. Remember, the story can’t be your star; it must only play a supporting role.

2. The story doesn’t compel the audience to act. The role of a story should be to illustrate or give an example of why your topic is important—why your audience should want to act after they’ve listened to you. A story should drive your point home in a way that simply stating the fact or listing reasons can’t do alone. Stories that fail to evoke an emotional response are a failure.

Fortunately, the solution can often be as simple as making it very clear why you chose to tell a particular story and what you want your audience to learn from each example you provide.

3. The story overpowers the message and doesn't support it. I’ve seen this problem crop up more times than I can count. Frankly, this mistake is typically the result of a lack of self control—when a speaker knows a story’s so compelling that he just can’t help sharing it, even though he knows full well that it’s somewhat off-topic or, worse yet, contradictory.

Great speakers know how to cull through their stories and find the one that’s best suited to accomplishing their specific goal. Stories should support, rather than detract from, a message. When you’re polishing the final version of your speech, cut any story that doesn't support your message. And be ruthless.

4. The story is disjointed or not meaningfully linked. Particularly in longer speeches, it’s essential to tie a story back to your message for the benefit of your audience. You know why you selected any given story, but you have to make those connections explicit for your audience.

Stand up comedians are masters at this tactic. They use call backs—references back to earlier themes or jokes—to weave a shared narrative for each performance. Move your audience through your speech, and connect all the dots for them. Pay attention to transitions between stories and your major points, and make sure that your audience’s journey is a seamless one.

5. You are the sole focus of all your stories. Yes, you may have been invited to speak, and yes, you may be the universally acclaimed expert in your field, but nothing turns an audience off faster than the perception that a speaker is full of himself.

Self-deprecation goes a long way, as does the selection of stories that don’t all feature you as the hero. Make sure you choose your stories carefully, pulling in, rather than alienating, your listeners. If you find yourself saying “I” or “me” in every sentence, that’s a clue that your speech is too you-focused.

Storytelling is how we preserved history before humans developed a written language. Stories create the foundation and fabric of human relationships, and they’re key to creating connections among people all over the world. But it's just one of the tools used by skillful public speakers, and the best speakers know how to use stories carefully, deliberately and with great effect.

Mike Michalowicz is the author of Profit First, The Pumpkin Plan and The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur. He's also the founder of Profit First Professionals, an organization that certifies accountants and bookkeepers in the Profit First method. 

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