Whether you are in a conference audience or in front of one, everyone wants to avoid the dead zone—any point in a speech where the audience starts tuning out. It’s when your phone, or any distraction, becomes more interesting than what the speaker is saying. A great conference speaker avoids that scenario by being a great storyteller. Who doesn’t like a story? Stories take us into another world and allow us to live through an experience we otherwise would never have.
A great storyteller helps us relive that feeling of being enthralled by a story, when we listened on the edge of our seats to find out what happened next. Stories allow conference speakers to communicate complex ideas, information, and data in the form of entertainment. Some great storytellers may be born that way, but I believe that storytelling is an art that can and should be practiced for optimal effect. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.
The Egg Story
When my aging grandparents moved from their farmhouse to an apartment, I helped stock the refrigerator with two dozen eggs. Space ran out with one egg in my hand. “Grams, toss it?” I asked. She was my mom’s mom, and had worked all of her life on a chicken farm. She and my grandfather were successful enough to have the first car in their town. She looked appalled at my question. “Oh no,” she said. “Wrap it up, we’ll take it.” “Isn’t she sick of eggs?” I wondered. This story isn’t really about eggs. It’s about values and teaching by example, which is what great stories and conference speakers accomplish. My grandparents came from a time and place where margins were slim, and they all had a sense that they never knew what tomorrow would bring. Working hard and saving was a given. As I grew up, I learned not to ask a question like whether to toss good food; asking about the egg was my way of learning from them how to survive and succeed. There’s also a great catch phrase in this story: “Wrap it up, we’ll take it.” That’s what I want my audience to do with my stories and even more, my main message.
Your Game Changer Takeaway: Great conference speakers know essential story elements
The main reasons I remember the egg story and like to retell it go to the heart of what makes a great story. These are elements that all great storytellers, at least on some level, recognize. A conference speaker who is a great storyteller knows:
- Family relationships help establish a quick, intimate bond with your audience. Functional or not, families bind all of us. Not everyone is comfortable with family stories, and they are not always appropriate, so another way to think about this element is familiar relationships. These are relationships between characters that are familiar to your audience. For a conference involving sports agents, a familiar relationship would be between a pro athlete and a team owner. Everyone is going to recognize that relationship; you don’t have to explain much.
- An initial conflict draws the audience’s attention. In the egg story, a little kid has a highly breakable item in her hand and she needs to know what to do with it. There’s not a ton of tension, but there’s enough to make you wonder what happens next. The more vulnerable the character, and the higher the stakes, the more tension you have.
- There’s a little suspense. Before I told you what I did with the egg, I paused to tell you more about my grandma and the chicken farm. The pause built suspense, and gave me a chance to impart important information for understanding the story. The more tension you have, the longer the pause can be, and the more satisfying the end needs to be for the audience.
- The story has a clear point. Here’s where some conference speakers get off track. A story can be funny and entertaining, but it needs to connect to the speaker’s main message. When you leave the audience with a string of stories that lack a coherent point, the effect is that they have spent their time focused on the speaker—not the message.
More than anything, a great speaker is a great message carrier. Stories are a means of carrying the message. Without a great message, stories fill time and leave the audience unfulfilled. At your next conference, listen for the stories and a clear message. If you hear both, you’ve heard a great conference speaker. When I hear one, my response is like my grandma’s: Wrap it up, we’ll take it.
Molly Fletcher helps inspire and equip game changers to dream, live and grow fearlessly. A keynote speaker and author, Molly draws on her decades of experiences working with elite athletes and coaches as a sports agent, and applies them to the business world. Sign up here to receive our monthly newsletter.