”Facts tell, stories sell.” — Anonymous

It happens to all of us. Whether at work, church, a social organization, or for some other occasion, we are asked to give a speech, conduct some training or make a presentation to our colleagues. For the vast majority of Americans, the very thought of having to give a talk becomes panic time.

Let me suggest something that will not only make you more confident but will also make you more persuasive and exciting.

As a longtime professor, seminar leader and meeting chair, I’ll admit I still get nervous at times. One of the greatest fears of even experienced speakers is that we will lose the audience’s attention, not connect with them, or bore them to death. Even the most compelling speakers need to realize according to cognitive brain expert Dr. John Medina, that the average human being has an attention span of about 10 minutes.

So what is going to happen if you have to present a 1-2 hour training session? Medina says you have to “change up” what you do about every 10 minutes. There are many techniques you can use, such as getting the audience to participate, doing a role play, or saying something startling. But perhaps the most effective way is to use the power and magic of telling a compelling story.

Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute said stories bring life and action to your topic. He says, “Reports convey information. Stories create experience. Reports transfer knowledge. Stories transport the reader, crossing boundaries of time, space, and imagination. The report points us there. The story puts us there.”

Let me tell you a couple of stories about people who do this.

First, Dr. John Bowling the President of Olivet Nazarene University, by all accounts, is one of the most effective speakers most of us have ever heard. He almost always starts his sermons, talks and addresses with an attention-grabbing story. And throughout his speeches, he continues to employ vivid stories. Many time he circles back to the opening illustration to summarize his speech.

Secondly, after graduating from Olivet in 1974, my wife, Barbara, had a successful 45-year nursing career in four states and in multiple nursing disciplines. Her experience made her especially suitable as an adjunct professor in Olivet’s nursing program. But knowing from experience and conveying that information to others is not always easy.

About three years ago, both she and I discovered the magic phrase, “Let me tell you a story.” And did she ever have some stories to tell, from the intercity, to hospital rooms, to the back roads of Northern Florida.

When she started a lecture or lesson for her ONU students with, “Let me tell you a story” immediately the students’ attention was laser-like focused and the learning magnified.

To make your stories attention-getting, structure them as suggested by Allison Davis in her Inc. Magazine article. She says, “You want the story to flow. One way to do it is to divide your story into three parts: In part one, you introduce the characters and the obstacles they face; part two is devoted to how the characters deal with the problem; part three describes the resolution.”

Davis goes on to describe how great fairy tales do this. “They begin ‘Once upon a time’ and introduce you to the person who the story is going to be about. (A poor but sweet girl.); then they introduce the conflict (a wicked stepmother and a bunch of rotten stepsisters; A prince looking for true love. A fancy ball. A glass slipper.); finally, fairy tales describe how the problem was overcome (in the whole kingdom, the glass slipper only fit her foot) and move to the resolution (they lived happily ever after.)”

An outstanding story has terrific staying power. The memory of stories and illustrations might last for weeks, months or even decades. Within a few days, people will likely forget about 95 percent of what we say, but a story will stay with them. I was reminded of that recently when I was meeting with two of my classmates, Nancy and Marilyn, to help plan our 50th high school reunion.

I have recently re-discovered the joy of reading (or listening) to short stories. Quite by accident, when I was browsing the latest Audible offerings, (Audible produces thousands of online books), I noticed a description of a book of short stories by O. Henry (1862-1910.) (This audiobook with almost 40 stories is on sales for $2.99 (see TAudiobook/B006P55CK2). The stores are read by one of the most talented readers I have ever heard, Bob Thomley.

Anyway, some 50 years ago in a high school English class, Marilyn, Nancy and I had read one of Henry’s classic stories, “The Ransom of Red Chief.” All three of us had distinct memories of that story. We likely forgot all those lectures in our English class on gerunds, dangling participles and other rules of grammar, but the story of Red Chief who hook-winked a couple of would-be kidnappers is burned into our memories.

So whether you are giving a talk or listening to others, never underestimate the power of story or illustration as a teaching tool for children, employees, friends and your business associates.

Dr. Don Daake is professor emeritus at Olivet and has an MBA from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. from Florida State University. He is a 1969 graduate of Charles City Community High School in Iowa. He can be contacted at

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