Add Context, Not Just Content, to Your Next Speech

While vacationing in Maine, my husband and I ventured to Lubec, Maine, the gateway to Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada—the once popular summer colony for wealthy Americans and Canadians, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On our way we stopped at Quoddy Headlight, the easternmost point in the U.S. And once on Campobello, we went to the East Quoddy Lighthouse.

Perched on an island and only accessible in low tide, the East Quoddy Lighthouse called to our adventurous spirit. We were eager to make the trip across the sandbar and climb the steps to the lighthouse. Although it’s dangerous and rugged, for two hours when the tide is out visitors can climb the steep metal ladders, walk on the ocean floor, cross two intermediate islands connected by a short wooden bridge, take a second steep ladder and then walk across a rocky, slippery seaweed covered intertidal zone to get to the lighthouse. We were ready for the adventure when we were warned that the tide had turned. Then we saw the sign:

DANGER!--TAKE NO RISKS & DO NOT LINGER! If you become stranded on the islands by the tide, WAIT FOR RESCUE. Even former keepers of this lighthouse have lost their lives by misjudging the STRONG, FRIGID, FAST-RISING tidal currents and TIDE-PRESSURIZED UNSTABLE PEBBLE OCEAN FLOOR while attempting to make this crossing.

At that moment, Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous saying, “Time and tide wait for no man,” took on a whole new meaning for me.

The tides in this part of the Bay of Fundy are 25 feet or more. We learned that further up the bay in Nova Scotia, the tidal changes can be more than 50 feet and most extreme when the moon is full. These are the largest tidal changes in the world. That’s a lot of water moving in and out twice a day, and it was clear that the tides were the backdrop for the entire way of life in this part of Maine.

We saw firsthand the dramatic changes in the tides. In Lubec, there are poles on the wharf that go up nearly 20 feet, taking the dock with it as the water rises and falls. Like clockwork, an hour before high tide a dozen or more seals, cormorants, gulls, and bald eagles arrive to feed on the fish brought in by the tide. Travelling to these places and witnessing the significance of the tidal changes first hand brought Chaucer’s quote to life. The facts were important, but seeing the facts in action was exhilarating!

This experience made me realize the importance of “context” in describing any situation. Until I saw the physical power of these dramatic tides, the phrase “Time and tide wait for no man” had little meaning to me. But now I get it. You can’t beat the tides. The sea will never bow to your will. And no matter how strong a swimmer you are, at 50 degrees the water is too cold, the rips too unpredictable, and the force of the water flow too overpowering.

I often counsel my clients to use stories, metaphors, anecdotes, and quotes—the rhetorical devices that create compelling imagery and add power to your presentations. However, it is absolutely essential to also provide the context in which the images reside.

To create effective presentations we often use phrases from our own experience, thinking that our audience fully understands the meaning. But they may not understand where we’re coming from. So our challenge as communicators is not only to come up with and deliver the clever anecdote, quote, or quip, but also to be successful in communicating the broader world from which it evolves. Yes, the facts of tidal changes were compelling, but then there was the DANGER sign, the rising and falling poles on the dock in Lubec, and the sea life feeding at the exact same time every day. These images bore witness.

Therefore, I encourage you to find those fascinating rhetorical gems and take the time to fully render them in context. Tell us more; make it come alive.

And now, I’ve gotta run. The lighthouse beckons, and the tide is coming in!

Whether on the 2012 Campaign Trail or in the Boardroom, Use Stories to Build Trust

Recently, President Obama admitted that his job as President is about more than just getting the policy right. As he put it, “The nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times." Well said, Mr. President! For years I’ve been telling business presenters that stories are essential to getting your message across. Whether speaking to a large group, as the President often does, or speaking to a small gathering of staff, telling a good story stimulates a strong emotional connection between you and the audience. Tell a story and you entertain. Tell a story and you connect. Tell a story and you build trust.

Stories play an important role in our everyday communication. They can bridge the gap that’s inherent in many types of presentations, from the lively motivational speech to the serious executive all-hands meeting to the dense technical demo presentation. In fact, we’ve all seen what can happen with the introduction of a story—a boring presentation will come alive!

If you want to persuade your listeners to your point of view, connect on a deeper level, and most of all build trust, telling stories is key. Here are a few simple tips to help enhance your storytelling.

  • Be yourself: You likely tell stories every day, and these are the stories that have the power to create a bond with your listeners. When you share a personal story, the distance between you and the audience dissolves. Stories show your vulnerability, which creates an opportunity for trust. As you tell a personal story, both you and the listener share a heightened emotional experience.
  • Build believable characters: Who are the heroes in your story? Take the time to develop characters who are appealing to you and your listener. Create characters by using the five senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste), and explore emotional, practical or other aspects of the characters as well. Let your characters grow every time you tell the story so that they take on a life of their own.
  • Create a plot that sticks: What are the stories that you remember? You no doubt have your favorites; we all do. No matter how charming and well developed your characters, the plot is often the most memorable. Create a plot that has action and movement. Let your character face and overcome obstacles, teach lessons and inspire. When you develop a detailed plot line, your audience will never forget it.
  • Listen to the stories of others: You hear plenty of stories regularly—in your everyday business presentations; in community meetings; in political, cultural, and religious speeches; in entertainment and comedy; at social events; in the media. Write down every great story you hear so you have fresh material to draw from and learn more about content style and delivery.
  • The Power of Practice: Most people are not natural “stage” storytellers but are comfortable telling a story at the dinner table. That’s why it’s important to practice your platform stories before you go live. Write out and organize the flow of your story, and then practice your language, sentence structure, pacing and rhythm. Remember that timing is still everything when it comes to storytelling, so use silence to create dramatic, strategic and forceful pauses. Practice is the key to delivering a story that builds trust.

No matter what kind of presentations you give, take some advice from me and the President: use stories! Let them help you grab the attention and tug at the heartstrings of your audience. Let your stories ring out and you’ll connect with your listeners in a whole new way—a way that builds trust and respect that goes way beyond the podium.

Speaking of Telling Stories in the Executive Suite

I have been working with a client in our Executive Immersion program and am once again reminded of the critical role that stories play in executive effectiveness.  My client is working hard to develop a communication approach that balances IQ and EQ—that is, using intellectual, analytical, problem solving tactics combined with an ability to manage and integrate a range of emotions in all forms of communication. This balance seems especially important when an executive is communicating a new, expanded or revised vision to a less than eager workforce.


The business of the executive suite is to develop, articulate and marshal resources toward a goal and strategy—i.e. to create the big picture. And the business of most employees is to do their job and develop one important piece of the picture to contribute to the overall goal. Sometimes these roles are in conflict and the employee can feel the burden of the vision without having the authority to act. All too often the executive message is not inclusive enough to sanction the employee to do their job. The executive speaks in “I, me, mine” when the employee wants to hear “You, we, us.”


So how can the executive bridge this gap?


In my view the key to aligning vision is to articulate a clear picture of success and then involve others in the achievement of the outcome. One highly effective and low risk way to create alignment without overwhelming, confusing or de-motivating employees is through storytelling.


Here’s a great example of a story that balances vision and clarity with a direct emotional appeal:


The CEO of a small Silicon Valley start-up told this story at the annual kickoff meeting. The company had quickly risen to unparalleled success with one product and was facing its next R&D challenge.


A long time ago, there was a master archer who wanted to become the best in the land. He set out to find an archer of even greater talent so that he might improve his craft. After months of walking through forests, meadows, and towns, he came upon a tree with an arrow in the exact middle of a painted target. As he walked on he saw a second tree with another exact bulls-eye. Soon, he saw more and more trees with straight arrows placed within the targets. Perfect bulls-eyes covered the forest. Suddenly, he entered a clearing and looked up. He saw the side of a large barn with row after row of perfect bulls-eyes. In that moment he knew he had found his mentor.


He began asking everyone he saw, “Whose barn is it that displays so many perfect arrows?” The people told him how to find the man who owned the barn. When he found this man he was surprised to meet a simple man, slow of speech, and awkward in his movements, certainly not the master athlete he expected to find. Unperturbed, he asked the man to share his secret. “How do you do it?” he asked. “How do you hit so many perfect bulls-eyes?” The man quietly explained. “Oh, anyone can do it. After I shoot the arrow, I take paint and draw a target around the arrow. I can create a perfect bulls-eye every time.”


After telling this story, the executive made two important points. First he said “There are many ways to hit the target, so innovate, create, and think out of the box;” and then he added, “Trust your instincts, your expertise, and your creative talent, and  beware of looking for a hero or mentor to teach you how to do this. After all, you already know how to do this, and what’s more, I trust that you can do it.”


This is the kind of story that my client wants to tell—one that articulates a vision in a creative and inclusive way and gets to the heart of the matter with sincerity and good will. This is a story where IQ and EQ are well integrated and showcase executive excellence.





Where the Wild Things Are and the Fun Theory

I first understood the power of storytelling early in my career when I was an actor in a small children’s reader’s theater company called the Peanut Butter Readers. Our small troupe toured in schools and libraries throughout New England and Canada dramatizing classical and modern stories. One of our favorites was Where the Wild Things Are. I have a long history with this enchanting story and I’m looking forward to seeing it on the big screen this weekend.