communication, presentation skills

The importance of stories

Early in 2012, my partner mentioned casually a conference that was being advertised around at his work. I jumped up and down with excitement and said we had to go – a far more enthusiastic response than he was expecting.

That’s how in November we came to be standing outside the Playhouse in Oxford, chatting to friends old and new, waiting for a long-anticipated experience: TEDx Oxford. It wasn’t a disappointment. The talks were fantastic: interesting, inspiring and entertaining. Very much on a par with all of the TED talks I’ve seen at

That got me thinking: what was it that made those talks so good? I’ve seen plenty of good speakers, heard and participated in many 15-20 minute presentations, kept to time to avoid boring the audience: so how come these particular 20-minute talks were so good? James Rhodes on piano and the number-magician were obviously special, but many used PowerPoint and covered serious topics like global treaties and child poverty.

The key, I think, was the storytelling. Every presenter had a story: either a personal story, or a series of anecdotes, or a thread through recent world events. The stories kept us interested, and helped us engage with their topic, relate to their points of view, connect their message with our own experience.

So what makes a good story? A good story starts with something intriguing – it makes us ask ‘so what happens next?’ It describes things in terms we understand and are interested in. And it connects with us on an emotional level – it has to answer the question ‘so why should I care?’

The last of those is hugely important – and where I think TED wins every time, because the presenters are talking about things they really care about, their passions: and that commitment and emotion comes through in their stories, and helps us, the audience, to identify with their causes. It’s why I can’t imagine having a job where I need to sell something I don’t truly believe is useful to the person I’m selling to. And why those TED talks struck a chord with me, even though I occasionally disagreed with their ideas.

Since going to the conference, I’ve been reminded of an ongoing desire to watch a few TED talks now and again. Whilst painting my dining room the other day, I found this one by Sarah Kay, poet and storyteller extraordinaire.

Sometimes stories don’t really need to have a beginning, a middle and an end in quite the way you imagine, but they have to have heart. This one is full of heart. Are yours?

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