The Importance of Storytelling in Public Speaking

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While studying for my Quantitative Research Methods in Communication midterm this weekend, I took a much-needed mental break to visit TED.com.  Because so many of my friends are or were online daters, the title of Amy Webb’s “How I Hacked Online Dating” immediately caught my eye.

I started watching it, and I marveled at the seamless, perfect blend of data and numbers with story in Webb’s TED Talk.  Her casual, audience-centered delivery and her beautiful supporting visuals rounded out all three legs of the presentation stool, and as a result, Webb delivered one of the strongest TED speeches with slides that I’ve actually EVER seen on the TED website.  Watch it here:

Source

I am not a numbers person.  I’ve spent 8 hours today and will spend 8 hours tomorrow and 8 hours on Wednesday (midterm day) creating flashcards, reading and re-reading my textbook, going over my class notes, and highlighting my instructor’s PowerPoint slides to try to figure out nominal measurement scales, coefficients, ordered variables, and many other miserably confusing quantitative-related vocabulary words.  Even putting in 24 hours of studying won’t help me feel completely comfortable with this material.  It’s not something that I understand easily.  That being said, I do love data and numbers when that information is presented in story form.  Because I get it.  Because story works.  Webb’s presentation (above) proves it.  She makes data simple and explains the meaning behind the data, and as Garr Reynolds reminds us, this is essential if we want our audience to remember the information we are presenting.

So what is Webb doing in her TED Talk that helps me and other audience members understand and able to recall the data in her presentation?

My co-workers and I were talking about TED Talks in general, and a comment was made that TED speeches weren’t practical in teaching and learning public speaking because they were too story-driven.  I didn’t stop to think about the comment mid-conversation, but I did think about it quite a bit for the next few days.  Yes, TED is story-driven, and that’s the point: story is what drives all human beings.  Story is the most digestible,  understood, and easy to retell communication medium in the world.  And, as we know when we study ethos, pathos, and logos, people throw reason and logic out the window when the right emotional chord is struck.  TED Commandment #4 is “Thou shalt tell a story,” and this is because story is what sticks (Source).

Don’t believe me (or the TED Commandments)?  Look no further than Chip and Dan Heath, the men behind Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.  The Heath brothers know what TED presenters know: that story is sticky and resonates within us for days, weeks, months, years.  Presentation revolutionaries such as Nancy Duarte teach us that story “has played a significant role in all cultures but its adoption into professional cultures has been painfully slow. That’s because it’s easier to present a report instead of a well-crafted presentation that incorporates stories” (Source).  If we’re going to create effective speeches, we have to start turning to story as the primary vehicle for communicating and delivering the information we want to stick in other people’s minds.

So Webb is doing what all presenters should do.  She’s telling her story, and her story helps us understand a) the purpose of her speech, b) the data she collected, and c) why this is important for us as audience members.

Why do you think traditional public speaking and presentation instructors scoff at story-driven speeches?  How can we convince these old school folks to change their mindset?

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2 thoughts on “The Importance of Storytelling in Public Speaking

  1. What an awesome example of engaging data-driven storytelling! While I did not approach my dating website experiences the same way, the idea of finding one’s own framework and gauge in seeking happiness/a goal really resonated with me.

  2. Also, I think our “blank slate” experiences with teaching and learning public speaking have actually helped us integrate TED in to the classroom in a way that those who study this subject may not have seen as viable. I spent very little time in traditional speech classroom, but my experience shadowing a speech course at Valencia College left me feeling that the subject was focused on learning a dry, perfunctory task. It wasn’t until TED that I learned that public speaking could be a dynamic conversation and moment of sharing. The main reason for this is TED’s focus on storytelling, which is the connecting thread of human experience. The need to communicate ideas orally is universal, and there’s never been a better way to convey an idea than by putting it into story form. Students don’t need to learn technicalities to become stronger speakers; they need to harness that universal thread and learn to communicate via story!

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