How to win over an audience

“Show me an MBA and your sales numbers, that’s fine.  But tell me a great story about how you got started and your vision, and we’ll talk.” —Barbara Corcoran, Shark Tank

1: Bryan Stevenson  was nine and playing with his cousins.  A small gesture was about to set him on his path to becoming a prominent civil rights attorney, Carmine Gallo writes in his book The Storyteller’s Secret.  

Bryan’s grandmother pulled him aside and said, “Bryan, I’m going to tell you something, but you don’t tell anybody what I tell you.”  She looked at him and said,” I want you to know I’ve been watching you.  I think you are special.  I think you can do anything you want to do.”

She then asked him to a make her a promise he would never drink alcohol.  Being nine, he willingly agreed.

About five years later, his promise was tested.

“One day my brother came home and he had this six-pack,” Bryan shares in his TED talk.  “And he grabbed me and my sister and we went out in the woods.  And he had a sip of this beer and he gave some to my sister and she had some, and they offered it to me.  I said, ‘No, no, no.  That’s okay.  You all go ahead.  I’m not going to have any beer.'”  

His brother became agitated and insisted he tried it.  “What’s wrong with you?  Have some beer.”  

Then, he looked at Bryan and said, “Oh, I hope you’re not still hung up on that conversation Mama had with you…. Oh, Mama tells all the grandkids that they’re special.”

“I was devastated.” Bryan pauses.  “I’m going to admit something to you,” he tells the TED audience.  “I’m going to tell you something I probably shouldn’t,” he pauses.  “I’m 52 years old, and I’m going to admit to you that I’ve never had a drop of alcohol.  I don’t say that because I think that’s virtuous; I say that because there is power in identity.”

2: To win over an audience, most speakers fail to think about how stories move people.  Instead, they spend a majority of their presentation providing facts, figures, and data.

“The world’s most inspiring educators do just the opposite, devoting 65 percent or more of their content to stories that establish trust and build a deeper, emotional relationship with their audience,” Carmine writes.  Only then, “once they’ve connected, can they educate.”

Two-thirds of Bryan’s TED talk is narrative.  Facts, figures, and statics make up about 25 percent and information intended to bolster his credibility is about 10 percent.

Bryan establishes his theme: the power of identity, at the outset of his talk.  He then tells his first story about the day his grandmother had him swear off alcohol.

Next, he begins his second story: the day he met Rosa Parks.

“Ms. Parks turned to me and she said, ‘Now Bryan, tell me what the Equal Justice Initiative is.  Tell me what you’re trying to do.’

“And I began giving her my rap. I said, ‘Well we’re trying to challenge injustice.  We’re trying to help people who have been wrongly convicted.  We’re trying to confront bias and discrimination in the administration of criminal justice.  We’re trying to end life without parole sentences for children.  We’re trying to do something about the death penalty.  We’re trying to reduce the prison population.  We’re trying to end mass incarceration.’

“I gave her my whole rap, and when I finished she looked at me and she said, ‘Mmm mmm mmm.”  She said, ‘That’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.’

“And that’s when Ms. Carr (Ms. Park’s friend) leaned forward, she put her finger in my face.  She said, ‘That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.’”

3: As communicators, we are at our most powerful when we engage people’s hearts rather than just their minds. “Remember,” Carmine tells us: “Data delivers information. Stories educate by adding soul to the data and, by doing so, force people to reconsider their closely held beliefs.”

Educating audiences on complex topics—topics that face habitual resistance—can feel overwhelming.  

“Storytelling not only helps; it’s essential,” Carmine observes.  

“Most people who watch a presentation with compelling stories and narratives are at loss to explain why the presentation inspired them,” Carmine notes.  “They just know they were moved. They want to be ‘friends’ with the speaker. They want to be part of the journey.”

The Storyteller’s Secret? “Facts are a necessary component of persuasion, but facts must be balanced with the skillful use of narrative to transport listeners to another time and place,” writes Carmine. “Once listeners are figuratively walking in the shoes of the protagonist—the hero—they feel as though they have a stake in the outcome and are willing to do whatever is necessary to help the hero reach his or her final destination.”

More tomorrow.

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Reflection:  Prior to my next meeting or presentation, think about what stories I can tell to help others understand my point.  

Action:  Do it.  Today.

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