The Art of Story Selling | Bruce Turkel

Many people who make speeches and presentations think speaking is about communicating facts. Because they’ve read books on public speaking or have listened to the old three-step plan for making a presentation, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them,” they develop a repetitive, instructive style. If you were to document their speeches, you’d find the structure looks something like this: Joke. Introduction. Fact. Fact. Fact. Story. Fact. Fact. Fact. Recap. Fact. Fact. Fact. Close.
Thanks to my friend and NLP guru Stanley Waxman, I’ve learned that the structure for a successful presentation should look more like this: Story. Story. Story. Story. Story. (Repeat as necessary). I call this structure of compelling public speaking story selling.

Stan ran a very successful law firm in New York before moving to Florida. Sometime around the years he thought he’d be retiring, Stan discovered Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and dedicated himself to learning its science and techniques, travelling around the world to pursue his studies and eventually becoming a master practitioner. With his newfound knowledge, Stan built a second career teaching and helping people use NLP to solve problems and improve their lives. Not surprisingly, his work in NLP was significantly impacted by his years as a powerful litigator.

Stan told me a story about a case he once tried that profoundly changed the way I make speeches. I’ll try to recap it briefly for you.

The case centered on the death of a seven-year old boy named Billy. Stan was representing the boy’s family and pursuing damages from the company whose product malfunction was to blame.

Stan told me the defense’s opening argument was typical courtroom fare. The attorney introduced himself, explained in very clear and factual language what the case was about, told the jury that he had reams of data that would prove his client’s products were not to blame and then reviewed a timeline of the events leading up to the regrettable incident (imagine calling the death of a young boy a “regrettable incident”). When the time for his opening statement was up, the lawyer straightened his tie, thanked the jury for their attention, and sat down.

Stan stood slowly. He turned towards the jury, cleared his throat deliberately, and told them this story:

“I went to visit my friend Jack the other day (Stan tilted his head towards the boy’s father, Jack, sitting in the courtroom across from the jury. Jack’s face was buried in his hands). When I knocked on the door there was no answer. I thought this was odd because Jack was expecting me, so I knocked a second and then a third time. On that last knock the door budged a bit and I realized it was unlocked. I turned the knob, pushed the door open, and let myself in. I saw Jack’s back from across the room. He was staring into the backyard; his shoulder slumped against the window frame. He must have heard me come in because even though he didn’t turn around he started talking without even greeting me.”

“I used to come home from work and stand right here,” Jack said softly, “and watch Billy on that swing. That swing set was Billy’s favorite thing and he’d go back and forth and back and forth, always with the biggest smile on his face. The swing used to squeak in a funny kind of way and as long as I heard that squeak I knew everything was okay in the world. Billy would swing back and forth until he’d look up and see me standing here watching him and then he’d jump right off and run inside to give me a big bear hug.”

Stan dropped his voice, imitating Jack’s faltering tone, “I just realized that no matter how long I live I’ll never hear that swing set squeak quite the same way ever again. They took my little Billy away from me.”

With that, Stan turned from the jury, walked over to Billy’s father and sat down next to him, putting his arm around the sobbing man’s back.

Is there any question in your mind which communication technique was more effective, Stan’s emotional recap or the opposing counsel’s evidence-based rhetoric? The defense attorney neatly presented the facts, summed up the situation and made his point. And over the duration of the lawsuit he followed the outline we’ve all been taught. That is, he told them what he was going to tell them, he told them and then he told them what he had told them.

But Stan’s presentation went much deeper, touching the jury’s heart and affecting their decision-making process and validating their values on an emotional level.

Stan was story selling.

Story selling is not only useful to win lawsuits, of course. Seth Godin writes about The limits of evidence-based marketing on his blog. “Apple tried to use evidence to persuade IT execs and big companies to adopt Macs during the 80s. Ads and studies proved that the Mac was easier and cheaper to support. They failed. It was only the gentle persistence of storytelling and the elevation of evangelists that turned the tide.”

That is the strength of story selling. Try it and let me know how it works for you.

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