Career & Success

How to Tell Your Story for Impact

Communication lecturer JD Schramm helps alumni develop the art and science of tight story-telling for social impact.

October 15, 2011

| by Theresa Johnston

JD Schramm has a reassuring message for anyone — and that includes just about everyone, really — who frets over the prospect of public speaking. “The beautiful thing about communication is that it is part art and part science,” he told a recent gathering at Stanford GSB. While some people are naturally gifted storytellers, “there are strategies that each of us can employ to work for us.”

Schramm, a lecturer in organizational behavior who also directs the business school’s Mastery in Communication Initiative, gave advice to a dozen of the school’s alumni in advance of an Oct. 20 celebration of the school’s commitment to developing leaders who can address the social and environmental issues of their times. For the occasion, the school’s Center for Social Innovation and its 40-year-old Public Management Program have asked alumni social innovators to participate in “Class Notes Live” sessions. The participants in Schramm’s workshop are among a larger group who will tell, in just four minutes each, their personal stories of impact. Schramm’s job was to get them ready.

His first piece of advice: Skip the boring preamble (“Hello, my name is Marsha and I’m here to tell you about XYZ Company”) and parachute straight into the dramatic heart of the narrative. “Many times we feel like we have to do a lot of prefacing, but four minutes goes by quickly,” Schramm said. “If you spend two minutes on background, you’ve lost an opportunity to grab attention.” Far better to leave the identifying bits until the second paragraph, or to the overhead PowerPoint image, or to the person charged with giving the introductions.

Another important rule is to “follow Goldilocks” — that is, to think carefully about how much detail to include; not too much and not too little. To illustrate, Schramm showed a video from his favorite teaching website, TED. In it, firefighter Mark Bezos told a brief but colorful story about retrieving a woman’s shoes from her smoldering house. By including a few vivid details ? the fact that the homeowner was barefoot, in her pajamas, standing under an umbrella in the pouring rain — he made the story come alive. But “had the fireman gone on and on about the color of the truck and the street address,” Schramm cautioned, “he would have ruined it for us.”

Among Schramm’s other “habits of concise storytelling”:

Connect with Individuals

“Deliver one thought to one person in the room,” Schramm advised, “and then turn your body and deliver another complete thought to another person. Have that moment. Eye contact is gold in storytelling. The more you can connect and pierce into somebody’s eyes, the more you can break down resistance.” It’s also a good idea to step toward the audience and use hand gestures to illustrate points, rather than stay fixed and frozen in one place.

As in Music, Silence is Effective

“You might use moments of silence to let people catch up with you, or to frame something, like the first time you use a phrase or an acronym. Or you can use silence just to get everybody’s attention,” Schramm said. “Just a few seconds, appropriately used, can add emphasis to your presentation.”

Don’t Read or Memorize the Manuscript, Nor Try to Speak Off-the-cuff.

It’s much more reliable and effective to memorize a list of bullet points and then practice telling the story over and over again, keeping the mental list as a reference.

Use PowerPoint Wisely

Slides should emphasize photography, illustrations, or charts, not words.

Know Your AIM: Audience, Intent, and Message

What do you want your audience to do as a result of this communication? “Sometimes you have to be explicit and say, ‘I want donors,’” Schramm observed. Other times you just want the audience to embrace an idea, or re-share the information with others. In any case, he said, “The best thing you can do is share a little bit at first, and have your listeners ask for more.”

Use Personal Anecdotes, Self-deprecating Humor, and Accessible Language

Don’t try to provide a thorough overview of your organization or focus solely on the tactical, factual sides of your story. Keep technical jargon to a minimum.

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