How to influence your audience by getting them to live through your story

I can remember my first speech, tethered to the rules and restrictions outlined by the lesson. As a middle-school child, I stood unprepared, nervous, and wondering if my audience was going to tear me apart. What’s more, I was being graded. My teacher was friendly, kind, and had that warm, youthful smile you see on teachers who love their work. It didn’t matter, I had no idea how to gain the interest of my audience and I desperately wanted to crawl under my desk.

So what did I learn since I stood in front of those apparent saber-rattling peers while I feared everyone’s judgment? I learned after speaking to hundreds of audiences since then that there is no script, no recipe to follow to be such an effective speaker that you can influence your audience. My knowledge was spun almost entirely from hands-on experiences that have always felt more natural, like telling a great story at a barbecue to friends.

To be a great speaker, you don’t need to follow a specific script that dictates your course. You also do not need to sign up for a class with one of the long-lasting, successful speaking programs like Toastmasters. There is nothing wrong with these, and they have benefited many. But if you’re like me, you don’t have the time to invest in attending regular sessions or structures when you want to get an important and engaging message across to an audience you aim to influence. Instead, consider a quick sequence to remember, one that anyone can follow, and expect next-level success when speaking to your audience. Here’s how:

Tell a story and attach

  1. Humor
  2. An inspiring, heartwarming message

Stories serve as a powerful tool to engage an audience because they offer the listener the feeling that they are actually living through the experience. This is the reason why we are so captivated by a good story. A story conveyed well is so profound that speakers’ and listeners’ brains demonstrate cognitive connectedness. This may sound like science fiction, but consider how this connectedness works. When experiencing a well-composed story, the exact same areas of the brain light up on an MRI in both the storyteller and the listener, simultaneously. When you hear a great story, that part of your brain literally mirrors the brain of the storyteller. You are so deeply engaged that your brain responds almost as if it is experiencing the event itself.

The parts of your story that include humor should be well thought through. Be careful with humor. It is not difficult to offend when using humor. The safer road is to laugh at yourself or your past self. Yet humor, when balanced right and received well, provides tremendous value. A speaker who connects through humor appears more human, and more likeable. Why does this matter? It pulls the tension out of the room, relaxes your audience, and makes people more attuned to your message. Be sure to test your ideas out with neutral parties though. You should be especially mindful if you will be addressing a diverse audience. Here is an example:

Speakers often find audience members wanting to take photos from their phones to capture a quote or slide posted that is part of your presentation. After about the second or third person snaps a photo, I often stop and announce, “wait…” Audience members often feel a momentary sense of discomfort because you might mention copyright infringement, or not to take photos of a paid presentation, etc. Instead, I turn to one side and pleasantly comment, “make sure you get my good side!” I have never met an audience that doesn’t release their previous tension with bursting laughter. It just seems to work, especially when you get the timing right with the right amount of hesitation. Again, it just takes a little practice. The point is, have fun with them and they will be more attuned to what you have to say.

The second part of telling a story to influence is to include an inspiring or heartwarming anecdote. I had the opportunity to teach a lesson on PBS during the pandemic with the purpose of reaching families who were disadvantaged, so kids could learn while shut away in quarantine, right from their TVs. The experience was incredible, and I wanted it to be a lesson students could learn from, that I, as an eighth-grader, did not have the opportunity to.

I introduced myself as Dr. Gaskell, Middle School principal, then opened the lesson sharing a story about a child who truly struggled, as detailed in a discouraging report. He was six months below grade level, significantly lacking in social awareness, and impulsive with difficulty interacting with others. I concluded by revealing that this student was… me.

My hope is that some of those at-risk children could relate to my story, my difficulties, and my eventual success as an educational leader, and feel hope and be inspired by the thought that they too could overcome the obstacles they faced. Inspiring and heartwarming messages come in many variations, but always from the heart. Incorporate your story into your overall message. Between the laughter, you entice from your audience with humor, and the inspirational story you captivate them with, you will have your audience hanging on your every word.

This was originally posted on SpeakerHub Skillcamp.