The third session of NSA Michigan’s Michigan Speakers Academy, held April 13, focused on the art and importance of storytelling. Session leader Mary Jane Mapes pointed out that people are hard-wired to learn by way of stories, much more than by listening to facts or logical arguments. Stories are an important and useful way to gain audience engagement.

Before Mary Jane talked about the art of storytelling, she asked everyone in the room for their thoughts on audience engagement—what had worked for them. Ryan, talking to engineers, had discovered that by intentionally putting errors into his slides, he was able to get and keep the attention of the engineers in his audience. Someone else in the group mentioned having people in the audience talk to their neighbor about a question. I have all my students walk in a circle drumming before I begin a shamanic healing workshop. Drumming and moving together helps people to separate themselves from the issues of their lives and become fully present at the workshop.

Among all the ways of creating audience engagement, telling a story—especially one based on personal experience—is one of the best. Storytelling has many elements: presence, voice inflection, body language, imagination, personal experience, and comic relief. Yet another element is where the speaker stands on the platform.

Mary Jane added that it is important to BE the story, keep the story in the present, use dialogue, use private thoughts, exaggerate, help the audience feel the emotion involved, and keep it moving to a climax, while still including comic relief to give an outlet to emotional tension build-up.

Mary Jane explained that the best stories follow the prototype of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey includes a particular structure, which includes: setting the scene and context, introducing the characters, beginning the journey, encountering and overcoming the obstacle, coming to resolution, and, finally, pointing out the lesson learned.

At the end of the day, storytelling is a way not only to engage the audience, but also to use the authenticity that a personal story lends you to build a bridge to your audience. The goal is to have the audience identify sufficiently with the speaker’s story that they become emotionally involved in it. The emotional involvement of the audience makes the speaker’s talk more memorable and leads the participants to take some action.

Finally, Mary Jane talked about her formula for getting across to an audience the points she wants to make in her talk in a way that the audience will remember. Her formula is PREP, which stands for (1) making a Point, (2) giving a Rationale for the point, (3) giving a story or Example which illustrates the point, and (4) reiterating the Point.

About the Author

Marjorie Farnsworth, MBA, MHt, PhD, is a hypnotherapist and shamanic practitioner with an office in Ann Arbor. Currently she is converting her nearly 25 years of past Fortune 500 work experience into a new program to help others transition out of the corporate world; the new program will include books, workshops, coaching and public speaking.