A Storyteller’s Guide to Public Speaking

I used to have a nervous tick that manifested whenever I spoke in public. My leg shook like a cartoon bunny. The severity of the tick increased the worse I thought I was doing. If my audience folded their arms, checked their watches, or rolled their eyes my brain sent a message to my thigh, “It’s rattling time!” The worst was when the momentum rode up my spine all the way to my neckline. I turned into a chatter-mouthed bobblehead. My words came out in a pulsing vibrato like I was talking into a desk fan.

I went into rabbit mode when I read an essay in class and mispronounced one of my fifty-cent buzz words. It happened when I pitched a script and the producers rolled their eyes toward each other, and when I gave technology tutorials and my coworkers interrupted to ask questions about what I’d just covered.

I hid behind Power Point presentations so thick with content they could stop bullets. I let my slides speak for me, but the moment the projector went on the fritz there went my leg, dancing on its own.

I broke the habit with a trick that had nothing to do with imagining my audience naked. I applied my gift for stories to composing speeches. It turned out plot structure was just what I needed to weigh down my restless leg.

Make Your Speech Easy For the Audience to Remember

You’ve probably heard the expression: “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said.” Repetition is great when you’re teaching someone how to navigate the mosaic of menu items in a complex application. When you’re relaying technical information you should repeat yourself several times, but if you’re making a persuasive argument you should do something different.

It’s better to clarify your point by restating it then to repeat it until it sticks.

A good way to do this is to introduce your agenda with a story. Narratives are easier to recall than bullet points repeated ad nauseum. We’ve all seen so many movies our brains are hardwired to remember things in three act structures.

In movies: the first act sets our hero on their quest, the second introduces hardships that force them to evolve, and the third has them approach their problem as a new person. The best films have us identifying so much with the hero that we feel like we’re changing with them. If you’re making a persuasive argument take your audience through the hero’s journey.

Get them personally invested in you, or a sympathetic subject, so they can identify with your goal. Tell them about what’s stood in the way of your goal and how it forced you to grow. Show them how that new knowledge helped you get through your lowest possible moment. If your audience is invested in your plight, they’ll share the same goal by the end of your speech.

So how do you get your audience to get invested in you?

Use Humbling Experiences to Make Speeches More Relatable

Filmgoers identify with characters who are introduced in moments of vulnerability. There’s something sympathetic about someone who’s grasping for an engagement ring that’s fallen through a sewer vent, or someone who double fists a pink slip and an eviction notice at once. Use your embarrassment.

Earn your audience’s emotional investment by recounting a personal failure rather than a triumph. If you want your audience to take your advice show them how your methods had to change over time. Let them know now what you wished you knew then. Spare them the pain of going down the same road, because you’ve already found the dead end.

If you’re addressing people who are interested in starting their own business talk about how disposable you felt working for someone else. If you’re addressing filmmakers thinking of crowdfunding their next project talk about how desperate you felt trying to break into the studio system. If you’re addressing people who want to drive traffic to their blogs confess your social media sins.

This account of your failings should be genuine, none of that Tony Robbins washing his dishes in the bathtub nonsense. Give your audience something real. Remember you’re only oversharing if the tragic part comes at the very end. If you tell the audience how you managed to pull yourself out of a tailspin you’ll seem brave to admit you were ever falling.

I use this technique all over this blog (I opened this article with an example). My journey as a writer has left me with a surplus of embarrassing learning experiences. I feel no shame in marching them out to support the lessons I’ve learned.

2. Blow Your Top

Yes, You Can Give A Speech Without Slides

I love me some good visual aids. I’m always looking for an opportunity to flex my Photoshop muscles, to spoof stock photos with my own likeness, and to make my titles look like movie logos, but I know better than to let my designs speak for me.

Too many corporate lecturers talk to their computers, reciting their slides in a drawl monotone. You’re better off sacrificing some of your armor to remind the audience that you’re there. The less you reference your materials the greater your connection with the people in front of you will be.

Try using a Memory Palace to remember your speech. You can do this by breaking it down into a handful of points. Since most people can store 7 items in their short term memory 7 is a good number to start with.

Now come up with big awkward images to remind you of these 7 points. If your introduction involves recalling a time you got fired imagine yourself set aflame. If your argument is that student debt is leaving people with empty pockets imagine someone with inverted pockets dragging on the ground. If your closing argument is that corporate jargon is lowering our reading comprehension imagine a book of forbidden knowledge with a question mark etched into it.

Now take a space you’re familiar with, like your home, and fill each room with these awkward images. Walk through this memory palace over and over again, using your awkward images to trigger your talking points.

Contrary to what you’ve seen on TV Memory Palaces do not give people photographic memory. You’ll still have to practice your speech, but this visualization technique will help structure your preparations.

Ask the Right Questions

When you ask your audience to participate do it in a meaningful way. Don’t use the Socratic method to try to milk each answer from them.

This is how one corporate speaker asked my coworkers to be polite. He set a giant pad on an easel, pulled out a marker, and said. “Now who can tell me some ways that you can be respectful of the speaker?”

He waited until members of the audience, people in their 20s through 60s, raised their hands like grade schoolers.

“Turn off your cellphones?”

The speaker drew a bullet point for CELLPHONES. “That’s a good one.”

“Don’t talk while the speaker is talking?”

The speaker drew another dash. “Don’t Interrupt. Very important.”

“Wait until you’re called upon to ask questions?”

“Wow, this is a smart group.”

This was a corporate function. The speaker’s information was supposed to improve the way employees carried on, but instead of telling us what to do he quizzed us. The speaker kept asking questions to get us to come to his conclusions, but never confirmed which of our answers were the right ones.

This technique is supposed to keep the audience engaged. it does if you save it for ah-ha moments where the listeners are meant to have revelations, but if you use it to tell people to turn off their phones you’re patronizing them.

If you choose to use subtext you need to foreshadow that your speech is going to have a twist. Drop hints like, “This story doesn’t play out the way you might think.” or “The story seems weird now, but just you wait.”

Knowing a twist is coming gives the audience a reason to pay attention. Bring them to the climax and then ask if they can guess what happens next.

1. Say it Loud

Closing Thoughts

If you’re one of those people who suffers from restless leg syndrome whenever you get up to speak in front of anyone try structuring your speech like a story. Restate your message without repeating it word for word. Humble yourself to make your audience sympathetic. Break it down to 7 plot points, place them in your memory palace, and walk through it until each one is as easy to recall as any object in your home. Don’t hide behind the projection screen. Foreshadow twists to engage your audience and save your questions for ah-ha moments.


My audiobook Terms and Conditions is now free on Bandcamp. You can listen to it right here!

After getting a lot requests for prints of my art I decided to open a  store on REDBUBBLE where you can find prints and a whole lot more.


10 thoughts on “A Storyteller’s Guide to Public Speaking”

  1. Drew,
    I am a filmmaker and everyone says I am a story teller, but when I have to give a speech I never tell stories. Thanks for opening my eyes and thanks for following me.

    1. Thanks for checking out my piece Joe.

      Many of these techniques I learned pitching movie ideas, either my own, or for scripts I’d written coverages for. Stories are the perfect framing devices for embedding a speech in your listeners’ memories.

  2. In the early days of blogging, I wrote pretty much as well as I do now (if I do say so myself); but I wrote about the really cool interactions I had with people each day (i.e., my successes), in the hopes of inspiring them to take some positive risks and do the same.

    A friend and I were talking earlier this year, and he suggested (in unrelated context) that people are most moved when writers and speakers touch on two topics: 1.) the successes of others and 2.) their own failures. I thought I’d try this out. As it turned out, my three most popular posts to date – after four years of blogging, and including all views in that time period – have been one recent post on the successes of others [HERE for the curious] and two on my own failures [HERE and HERE], the latter of which you, oddly enough, just read elsewhere it seems, Drew.

    I don’t mean to stock my comment with links to my own writing, but it just seems uncanny. That said, it also seems I may have noticed on … perhaps LinkedIn? … that you recently read this post of mine, written for another blogging site, which gives a visual lesson how to remember sequences of information, particularly for presentations [HERE].

    All of this is to say that we do seem to have our thinking aligned in uncanny ways of late, you and I. (And I just have to add that, if all of those embedded links above work, it will be a miracle! My eyes are crossing with all of the HTML code I just had to write to insert them here.)

    1. Ever since I read Hannibal loved the idea of mnemonics as plot devices. It wasn’t until I started reading Derren Brown’s books that I got a solid understanding of how these memory enhancement techniques work. I saw that you used the linking system which is the first one Brown covers in his book Tricks of the Mind. Another great book on the subjects of linking and memory palaces is Moonwalking with Einstein.

      I first started using humbling stories when I was training elderly folks to use their new technology. I found if I mentioned how hard it was for me to learn all the procedures that went into using a computer it would put them at ease. Then my job was to demystify their technology. I implied that they were learning faster than I ever did.

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