Best-Ever Guide to Integrating Stories into Speeches, Presentations, Indeed, Any Influential Message

A couple of weeks ago, in writing about commencement speeches, storied an unstoried, I noted that Terrence Gargiulo, who delivered a commencement speech recently, was “considering doing a meta analysis of how [he] worked with the craft of story making to research, design, and deliver this talk.”

TerrenceCommencement.jpg Well, he’s done it, and the resulting white paper is a wonderful primer on bringing story into the communication of any kind of influential message, including speeches and presentations. The talk that forms the framework of the white paper is the commencement speech Terrence delivered at Santa Catalina School recently.

Terrence puts graduation speeches into the same category as keynotes, and I agree. Both are meant to set the tone for the future. In the case of the keynote, it’s the future of the conference or event at which the keynote is presented. Both are meant to be lofty, uplifting, and motivational. And both are presented to audiences that are not necessarily receptive to hearing a speech. As I mentioned two weeks ago, graduating students tend to want to just get on with it rather than listen to a speech. And while keynote audiences may be inspired by the keynote’s message, they are often eager to move on to the actual content of the conference or event that the keynote kicks off.

Terrence says he sets “the value of keynoting high, ensuring that only the most serious clients engage me in this way.” He also almost always insists on being given other opportunities to work with some of the members of the audience in a different setting other than the plenary address.

First step is some basic research. Terrence researches through his audience’s stories:

Whether or not my clients realize it or not I probe client engagement requirements and stakeholder perspectives with the natural power of story. I elicit stories. Call me wedded to my storied ways, but I don’t know any other way to quickly infer patterns in complex systems.

Once he had done his story research, Terrence found that three themes emerged for his speech. He then developed a story architecture or structure for those themes. He suggests that white-paper readers watch the video of his commencement address while (or before) following along with his outline of the speech’s structure.

In a “Lessons Learned” section, Terrence talks about how he chooses stories for the speech and what kinds of stories he looks for.

One of my favorite parts of white paper is the list of types of stories he included in his speech. This list is a terrific guideline for anyone planning a speech and can be adapted to virtually any kind of presentation:

  • Personal History
  • Student Anecdotes: Simply translate this one to “audience anecdotes” to adapt to any speech.
  • Personal anecdote that ties into speech themes.
  • Movie stories from popular archetypal movies.
  • Story from a book.
  • Historical Story of Major Personality.
  • Life Story of Contemporary Young Personality: Again, adapt “young personality” to your own audience.
  • Scenario Stories, which Terrence describes as “rhetorical questions that paint a scene” tied to the speech’s themes, starting with the personal, then moving back to the audience.
  • Story as Music: Terrence is a good singer and sang to add some humor to the speech. Not for everyone.
  • Story as metaphor and image: Set up an image that encompasses the speech’s themes as they relate to the audience; start with quotes; end with vivid word picture.

Terrence ends with additional tips that provoked me to remark: Easy for you to say! Terrence does a lot of speaking, so when he said he delivered the Santa Catalina speech with no practice and no notes, I knew that advice wouldn’t work for everyone. When he says …

Delivery matters but not as much as you think. If you get caught up in the groundswell of stories you are sharing and your audience, you’ll be surprised at how an effective tone, color, and character emerges.

… I thought, well, yes, but you are a practiced professional at delivery, and most people will need rehearsal.

I was intrigued by this advice about stories. It’s important for your stories to fit together to illustrate your themes:

Think in terms of collages of stories. Avoid single stories. There’s a place for them and I am not recommending you abandon great stories with visible arcs, surprises, and tensions. Lots of stories orbiting your talk pull people into the gravity of your message.

The bottom line is this, crucial advice for communicating any influential message: Work to make stories in all their forms a central part of how you understand your message, craft your message and deliver your message.

Terrence has generously given me permission to offer the white paper to you via download: An Analysis of a Storied Approach to Crafting Influential Messages

A Storied Career

A Storied Career explores intersections/synthesis among various forms of
Applied Storytelling:
  • journaling
  • blogging
  • organizational storytelling
  • storytelling for identity construction
  • storytelling in social media
  • storytelling for job search and career advancement.
  • ... and more.
A Storied Career's scope is intended to appeal to folks fascinated by all sorts of traditional and postmodern uses of storytelling. Read more ...
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Dr. Kathy Hansen

Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...


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The following are sections of A Storied Career where I maintain regularly updated running lists of various items of interest to followers of storytelling:


Links below are to Q&A interviews with story practitioners.

The pages below relate to learning from my PhD program focusing on a specific storytelling seminar in 2005. These are not updated but still may be of interest:

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