(Warning: this post is more philosophical, less practical than most of my posts.)
Stories are the single most powerful element of most speeches. There are many ways to think about speeches and about their uses. Here are my ruminations about three types of stories.
These are the typical stories we tell all the time. They’re narratives of a particular individual or group of people involved in a sequence of events resulting in a change of some sort.
Think for a moment of The Biggest Loser. It’s a TV series on NBC about a group of overweight contestants attempting to lose the most amount of weight to win the title “The Biggest Loser.”
Each contestant has his or her own individual story. The NBC website says as much in advertising the latest season:
Their individual stories are compelling, from a firefighter (Allen Smith) whose health and job are at risk because of his weight to a military wife and mother of four (Tracey Yukich) who has always put others first. Viewers will also meet a remarkable woman (Abby Rike) who endured the worst tragedy imaginable – losing her husband and two children in a deadly car crash – and who now gets a second chance to restart her life.
The individual stories that we tell in our speeches are like the stories told on The Biggest Loser. They are rich in specific detail and in emotional engagement.
Sometimes people talk about the story of a presentation or speech, and they’re clearly not talking about a specific story. (I most frequently hear technical presenters and sales representatives referring to “story” in this way. They talk about getting their story down or, if they’re giving a team presentation, about telling the same story.)
I think what they’re talking about in such cases is the overarching story, the recurring or dominant theme that informs the whole speech.
Back to The Biggest Loser. The overarching story of the series, now in its eighth season, is — as far as I can tell — transformation. By making changes in their diets and exercise routines and by coming to terms with their personal issues, contestants have the chance not just to lose weight but to transform themselves.
What the series promotes — in addition to commercial time and, now, a series of books, DVDs, appliances, fitness equipment, protein supplements, and countless other health and lifestyle based products — is hope. If these contestants can transform themselves, there’s hope that we can do it too.
The individual stories of contestants like Allen, the firefighter, are unique, but they all tell the same overarching story.
In a speech we tell individual stories. And our speeches, if they hold together at all, tell an overarching story. During his presidential campaign, for example, Obama’s overarching story was change.
Grand stories, sometimes called metastories, are the underlying structures or the archetypes of both the individual and overarching stories we tell.
I would say that America’s predominant grand story is self-creation: through our hard work and individual effort, we make ourselves into the type of people we choose to be. We are defined — in our minds — less by our physical limitations, our histories, our socio-economic standing, our families and societies than by our own efforts.
The overarching stories of The Biggest Loser (transformation) and of Obama (change) are variations of America’s grand story (self-creation.)
What does all this mean to speakers?
First, I can’t overstress the value of telling stories in your speeches. If you’re not already doing so, find a way to incorporate at least one individual story in every — or in almost every — speech you give.
Second, be attentive to the overarching story your speech is telling. If your speech doesn’t hold together, it may lack the unifying theme of an overarching story.
Third, tie your overarching story into a grand story in order to increase its evocative power. If your overarching story is in harmony with the audience’s grand story, your speech will resonate with them. It will ring true to them.