“The most powerful words in English are ‘tell me a story.'”
—Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini
“Over the years I have become convinced that we learn best—and change—from hearing stories that strike a chord within us . . . Those in leadership positions who fail to grasp or use the power of stories risk failure for their companies and for themselves.”
—John Kotter, Harvard Business School professor, author of Leading Change
People remember stories in your speech. The rest fades away.
I learned that pearl of wisdom from studying great literature and telling personal stories, and now teach it to students of speech. Who can forget the stories of The Iliad and The Odyssey having once read the books or heard of these tales of Homer? And when I want to tell a story of a hero, I think of the story detailed in another chapter of the life of my heroic policeman father who rescued hostages and gave wise advice about medical school that has served me well throughout life, that is, Homework; Courage; Never Give Up!
Again, people remember stories. They forget statistics, graphs, and most information on slides. Stories that generate emotion have the equivalent of Velcro stickiness to your long-term memory storage.
It has been nearly sixty years since I graduated from Tulane Medical School, yet I still recall vividly certain classes because of the stories told by our professors. I may not recall the specific topic taught on any given day, but the stories my professors told are saved permanently to the memory banks of my mind.
Dr. Charles Edward Dunlap was the chairman of the department of pathology. He lectured to us one day in our second year of school. He walked into the classroom and began telling us a recent encounter he had outside of Charity Hospital, located next to Tulane Medical School. One evening while leaving Tulane Medical School dressed in a suit, rather than a lab coat or hospital scrubs, a man ran up to him with a knife and told him, “Your money or your life!” Dr. Dunlap reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, saying, “I don’t have much money in my wallet because I work as a doctor at Tulane and Charity Hospital every day and don’t carry much money.” The man exclaimed, “Oh, my God, I am sorry. I didn’t know you were a doctor at Charity.” The man then turned and ran off, leaving the wallet behind. Dr. Dunlap told us that doctors are respected, even by those feeling desperate enough to commit armed robbery. As members of this honored profession, Dr. Dunlap continued, it is our responsibility to continue to bring honor to the profession by practicing the tradition of putting our patients first: care for the sick, heal when possible, and always comfort.
The story of Dr. Dunlap is one I’ve used in front of a multitude of audiences because it is authentically my experience, it conveys the message of the importance of, and benefits from, honor and dedication in any chosen profession, and it strikes an emotional chord with the audience because we all want to believe there is a code of honor in human behavior, even among thieves. In this case, it was the awareness that doctors who worked at the famed Charity Hospital of New Orleans were caring for the poor, the destitute, and the most vulnerable of society.
The Rolling Stones performed in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on July 15, 2019. The Superdome is the location for the New Orleans Saints football team home games.
The seventy-five-year-old Mick Jagger, back in top form after a heart valve operation, strode out on the stage and said, “I just came from the ten-yard line—let’s hope there’s not another no-call.” The crowd roared!
Mick was referring to the NFC championship game for the 2018–2019 season between the Saints and Los Angeles Rams, where the officials failed to call a widely acknowledged pass interference on the ten-yard line that stopped the Saints’ Super Bowl hopes. He also swooned the crowd by saying New Orleans has the best food in the U.S. and cited, “crawfish, jambalaya, and beignets.”
Mick Jagger’s short stories are a perfect example of doing your homework about the local news when you perform or give a speech. And the Rolling Stones are so good they don’t need to do the local stories, but they go all the way with music and local connections. Truly professional!
As Christopher Witt said, “Good speakers tell stories. And great speakers tell great stories. The stories we tell help us define ourselves and what matters to us. They provide meaning and a sense of direction. They touch our imaginations and emotions. They’re memorable. In short, I can’t understand how anyone—especially a leader—could give a speech without telling a story.”
Stories often are passed down through generations and make for interesting inclusion in speeches. Everyone has vivid memories of certain events in their life, and those events may be related to the topic of your speech and appropriate for the audience you are addressing. We all have a treasure trove of personal stories, and it is only a matter of picking a few that the audience can relate to and will advance the message of your speech.
- People remember stories in your speech. The rest fades away.
- Always try to tell a story in your speech. Great literature and news can be sources for stories, but personal stories are best because you are the witness of the story and can bring authenticity to its telling.
- The beginning and the end of a speech are ideal locations for stories.
- We all have a treasure trove of personal stories, so pick a few you are comfortable sharing that work for the message of your speech.
Donald J. Palmisano is a surgeon, an attorney and past president, American Medical Association. He is the author of A Leader’s Guide to Giving a Memorable Speech: How to Deliver a Message and Captivate an Audience.
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