There’s this one instance that stands out vividly in my memory. It was very early in my speaking career. I was so focused on delivering content that I overlooked the essence of engagement. I was at an event put on by a friend of mine. I was all geared up to talk, prepared with loads of practical advice and tips. I had my notes which were essentially a long list of points I was determined to cover.
Midway through, my friend, Monica, sensing the audience’s disengagement, literally pulled me backstage to point out how my fixation on the content was making the talk dry and boring. She said, “What are you doing out there? You are supposed to be real, engaging, and funny!” I was so confused… I had 10 points I had outlined in my notes, and I was only on point 5! Before I could respond, she grabbed the notes from my hands and tore them up! She urged me to just talk to the audience, to share my experiences and insights in a more conversational, relatable and make them happy they are attending the program.
That moment changed everything for me. It was like a light bulb went off – I realized that storytelling wasn’t just a part of the keynote; it was the heart of it.
Returning to the stage without my notes, I began to speak more freely, sharing personal anecdotes and experiences from my days in the retail industry. I talked about real challenges and joys—and just like that, I could see the shift in the room. The audience was more engaged, nodding, smiling, and connecting me with my stories.
Looking back on those early days, I understand now how pivotal that shift was. It wasn’t just about moving from content to stories; it was about moving towards a more authentic, relatable, and emotionally resonant way of connection.
The Core of Keynote Speaking: Storytelling
Back in the mid-2000s, the landscape of the speaking industry was quite different. It was a world where facts, figures, and expertise took center stage. Steve Jobs had just introduced the iPhone to the world, and everyone wanted to mimic his larger-than-life “content is king” persona. While there were still great storytellers back then, it felt that most speakers at that time were valued more for their technical content and less for how they delivered that knowledge.
As time went on, I started to notice a significant change – a shift towards storytelling.
You see, the speaking industry began to realize something crucial: information alone doesn’t inspire, doesn’t stick. It was the stories wrapped around these facts that captivated audiences— that made the messages memorable.
We transitioned from a ‘tell and inform’ approach to a ‘show and connect’ method. And that’s where, storytelling became a game changer.
Storytelling in keynote speaking is not just about entertainment; it’s about creating a connection, making complex ideas accessible, and touching hearts in a way that facts alone never could. It’s about taking your audience on a journey with you, making them feel part of your narrative.
Consider the difference between a dry recitation of facts and a vivid story that paints a picture. Stories have the unique ability to draw the audience into a shared experience, creating a bond between the speaker and the listener. The truth is audiences are more likely to remember a compelling story than a list of facts. By embedding key messages within stories, these messages become more digestible, relatable, and, most importantly, memorable.
This evolution in the industry resonated deeply with me. I saw firsthand how stories could transform a room and how they could turn a speech into an experience. And this is the shift that has redefined keynote speaking. It’s no longer just about what you say but how you say it – through stories that engage, inspire, and stay with the audience long after the program is over.
5 Tips to Effectively Use Story in Your Keynote Presentations
So, with all that said, let’s talk about a few ways you can effectively use story in your keynotes, as well as highlight a few potential pitfalls:
1. Make Sure Your Stories Are Relatable
When I think about crafting a keynote, my starting point is always with content that’s relatable. I’ve learned over the years that the best stories are those that my audience can see themselves in. It’s about choosing narratives that mirror experiences or emotions familiar to them, whether it’s overcoming a challenge, experiencing a moment of triumph, or even navigating the complexities of everyday life.
When a story isn’t relatable, it’s like watching a movie where you just can’t connect with the characters – you might sit through it, but it won’t leave a lasting impression. In my keynotes, I’ve noticed that if a story doesn’t resonate with the audience, it can create a disconnect—the audience will tune out, and the message you’re trying to convey gets lost in the void.
There have been times in my career when I chose stories that I thought were interesting and impactful, but they fell flat because they didn’t align with the audience’s experiences or expectations.
An unrelatable story is a missed opportunity – an opportunity to connect, to inspire, and to make a lasting impact. That’s why I now take extra care to ensure that my stories aren’t just reflections of my journey, but also have elements that are universally human and resonate with a wider audience.
2. Your Stories Should Align with Your Core Message
It can be tempting to include a story just because it’s entertaining or it’s a personal favorite, but if it doesn’t tie back to the core message of your presentation, it can actually detract from the impact you are trying to make.
I remember once, mid-point in my career, I included a story that was a real crowd-pleaser. It was humorous, it had twists and turns, and it always got a great reaction. But over time, I noticed something. Even though the audience loved the story, didn’t fit into my keynote and it wasn’t reinforcing my message.
It was a hard decision, but ultimately, I had to let that story go. It was a good story, but it wasn’t the right story for the core message of my keynotes.
Now, when I’m crafting a keynote, I carefully select stories that complement my message. If my keynote is about embracing change in the workplace, I’ll share stories from my own life or others that highlight adaptability, resilience, or innovation. These stories aren’t just add-ons; they’re integral parts of the narrative that bring my points to life.
What I’ve found is that when stories align with the key messages, they give the audience a way to see the message in action—to understand it on a deeper level. This alignment is what takes a keynote from being good to being unforgettable.
3. Great Stories Don’t Have to Be Extraordinary
There’s this misconception that for a story to be engaging, it must be about something extraordinary – like climbing Mount Everest. This can lead many aspiring speakers to hesitate to use their own stories in keynotes because they feel their experiences aren’t exciting or unique enough to capture an audience’s attention.
I’ve learned that it’s not about the magnitude of the story; it’s about how you tell it. A good storyteller can turn even the most everyday experience into a captivating narrative.
And while climbing Mount Everest is undoubtedly an incredible feat, not everyone in your audience can relate to such an experience. They might find it interesting, sure, but it’s hard for them to see themselves in that story—to feel a part of it.
I’ve found that the most engaging stories are often the ones that reflect common experiences – the challenges and triumphs of daily life, the small yet significant moments we all encounter. It’s in these stories that audiences find pieces of themselves. When I share a story about a hurdle, I faced in my retail business or a simple yet impactful interaction I had with someone, it resonates. People connect with the human elements – the emotions, the decisions, the outcomes.
Remember, storytelling in keynotes is about creating a connection, and sometimes, the simpler the story, the stronger the connection. It’s about taking those ordinary moments and presenting them in a way that highlights their significance. That’s where your skill as a storyteller comes into play.
So, investigate your own experiences, find those moments of learning, of emotion, of change, and share them. The real magic lies not in the story itself, but in how you tell it.
4. Balance Storytelling with Informative Content
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of stories in a keynote—how they can truly transform a talk and make it resonate. But here’s the thing: too much story can quickly turn your keynote program into a self-absorbed showcase, and that’s not what we’re aiming for. It’s all about balance.
I’ve seen it happen (and am guilyt of it myself)—speakers getting caught up in their own stories, and suddenly, it’s all about them. It’s easy to do, you know? We all love talking about ourselves, but I remind myself – and my clients – that the audience didn’t come just to learn about me. They came to gain insights, to see their own challenges and triumphs reflected in the narrative.
So, when I’m putting together a keynote, I’m always checking in with myself. Is this story adding value, or is it just me going down memory lane? If it’s the latter, it’s got to go. At the end of the day, the goal is to leave the audience with something they can use, not just stories about where I’ve been or what I’ve done.
5. The Right Way to Practice Vulnerability and Authenticity
One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned on stage is the power of vulnerability and authenticity. Let me tell you, being genuine and open, sharing not just your triumphs but also your struggles and setbacks – that’s where the real connection with your audience happens. It’s like opening a door to your world and inviting them in. It makes you a relatable human.
But here’s the thing – there’s a right time and a wrong time to share certain stories. If there’s a story that’s still too close to the heart, where the emotions are raw and right on the surface, I might not be ready to share it. Because if I’m on stage getting teary or if it feels like I’m working through my own stuff in front of an audience, it stops adding value. It becomes uncomfortable, even cringy. The stage isn’t the place to process my emotions – it’s the place to share insights from having processed them.
Being too vulnerable to the point where it overshadows your message and makes the audience feel uneasy, that’s not what we’re going for. We want to strike that balance – enough vulnerability to be authentic and relatable, but not so much that it becomes a therapy session.
So, how do I decide when a story is ready to be told? I sit with it, I work through it, and I wait until I can share it with clarity, not just emotion. That way, when I bring it to the stage, it serves its purpose. It becomes a story that not only illustrates my message but empowers the audience, too. That’s the sweet spot of vulnerability in storytelling.
In closing, the true art of keynote speaking lies in the moments where the audience sees a bit of themselves in your story, leaving them empowered and ready to tackle their own challenges. It’s this sweet spot – this perfect blend of relatable storytelling and actionable content – that can turn a good keynote into an unforgettable one.
So, as you prepare to step onto that stage, ask yourself: “Is this story going to enlighten, encourage, and inspire action? Or is it just for me?”
The answer will guide you.