“Paper or Plastic?” Captured an Audience’s Attention

My attention was jolted out of my pre-speech-giving trance when the speaker ahead of me started to tell a story about taking her 86-year-old father to the grocery store. She had let him wander the aisles with his own cart because he was persnickety about his independence. After finishing her shopping, she got into the check-out line behind him and noticed that he was flustered and upset. “What’s wrong Dad?” He pointed to the clerk, “Did you hear what she just said? She told me to ‘Pay up, bastard.’” The truth dawned on the daughter: “No, no, Dad! She was asking if you want paper or plastic.”

Instead of pouring over my speaker notes, I decided to listen to her presentation. We were at a nutrition professional conference, and she was addressing the topic, “Strategies for Working with Older Adults.” Her story vividly illuminated communication challenges due to hearing loss, but she also wove the story into other key points such as acknowledging traditional values (respecting elders) and providing supported independence (letting her dad do his own shopping). Her story distilled theories and research into simple and memorable principles.

Selecting an Opening Story

Years later, I remember this speaker’s key messages—even though the topic is not relevant to my work—because of her effective use of this funny story. Besides telling a great story, what else did she do well? First, her story was brief, which is critical for an opening story when an audience is still deciding whether to listen or tune out. She also role modeled several other important considerations for an opening story. She grabbed attention—even pulled me out of deep concentration. Her use of humor relaxed the audience and created a human connection. Her story provided context and background for the topic and revealed key insights. Lastly, she wove the story into the body of the presentation.

At the other extreme, long-winded jokes and stories can detract from a speaker’s credibility and turn off audiences. To avoid derailing, think through what you want to accomplish with an opening story and find a relevant tale. It might help to explore stories related to the topic then tease out what role the story will play. Or you might prefer to define the role of an opening story then go searching for a story that fits. For me, it’s often an iterative process.

Where to Find Opening Stories
You don’t need to be a master storyteller to kick off your presentations with stories. There are many places to find stories. Explore these possibilities:

  • Personal Story—Everyone’s life contains a treasure trove of experiences that can be turned into stories. Take a walk down memory lane for stories from your work and personal life that that link to the topic of your presentation. My website offers some downloadable tools, “Mining for Stories” worksheets, to help you turn episodes from your life into meaningful stories for business communications.
  • Fables and Fairy tales—Browse through children’s books and fables. The book, Power of Metaphor, which includes a compilation of parables and folk tales from around the world, may help you find an appropriate story.
  • Company or Organization Stories—Look within your organization for relevant stories. Employee or workplace stories show a human side of business topics. Brand or consumer stories might bring your messages to life. If you work in healthcare, patient stories reveal an emotional side of health. User or customer experiences can uncover design flaws or successes.
  • Books and Movies—Many popular books and movies are based on universal plots with widely applicable themes. It might be hard to recap an entire book or movie when opening a speech, but a representative clip or passage could meet your need. Stick to popular or classic works, because an excerpt from an obscure story might lack context and fail to connect with the audience.
  • Pop Culture—You might be able to connect your topic to an inspiring current event. Skim the news, YouTube, and Google. Steer clear of polarizing topics to avoid alienating anyone in your audience. Likewise, be cautious of current events that fire up some people but leave others flat (e.g., sports, celebrity gossip). Stories that are inclusive and convey a universal message will be most effective.
  • Jokes—Many speakers open with a joke, which can be an effective way to break the ice and relax an audience. Funny stories, like jokes, start a speech on an entertaining note. However, avoid off-color humor. Also, self-deprecating jokes/stories can come off as a phony way of bragging (“I’m not really dumb, I’m funny.”) and undermine the speaker’s credibility.

Role of an Opening Story
Brainstorm all the possibilities for how you might connect a story to your topic. Highlight all the linkages, then go back to your outline to see how to thread the story throughout the speech. This mind map might help you diverge and converge in determining the role and fit for an opening story.

I think that the “Paper or Plastic” story is hilarious, but for this speaker, the story accomplished much more than invoking laughter and breaking the ice. If she had gone on to talk about food regulations or an unrelated topic, the audience may have felt let down—remembered her story but not her speech.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.
A story is worth a thousand pictures.”
—The Power of Metaphor

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