By Francisco García Pimentel, Entrepreneur
We’ve all had to perform in front of an audience for one reason or another: to give a speech, offer a toast, or present a business. If you are an entrepreneur, then you will have to persuade partners and investors and, of course, sell your product or service.
Speaking in public is one of the most persistent fears and phobias, and not without reason: the survival instinct takes control of our body and our mind when we feel insecure, threatened or under stress, and the threat of social cost is one of the more pressing. Just as we know that almost everyone suffers from some level of stage fright, we also know that it can be educated and controlled to deliver powerful, effective, and humane speeches.
One of the most prevalent questions in public speaking and communication courses and trainings is this: How should I start a speech?
It is an important questio, because the first seconds of a speech establish its style and its rhythm and, above all, forge an emotional relationship between the participants. At the end of the day, remember that the audience will not be able to “connect” with your product or your proposal if they have not previously connected with you on a personal level: We listen to those we trust, and we trust those with whom we have a relationship.
There are many ways to start a speech. One of the most used is to use a phrase from a famous person (Benito Juárez, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.) to give “seriousness” and impact to the presentation. In my opinion, this option is ideal in a school contest, but it rarely works in a business presentation. At least, not like this.
Another very helpful is to tell a joke, joke or make a funny comment, because if the audience laughs, that means we are doing well. It is a way of connecting. This is correct! Two people laughing together connect almost immediately, aligning their neurons, and almost automatically placing themselves on the same side of the equation. The problem with this approach is that it is extremely risky, since a joke well told is just as valuable … as a badly told one is disastrous. As a communication consultant, I recommend humor as a weapon of attack only for those who are excellent joke-tellers, or who already have a prior relationship with the audience. Nothing is more uncomfortable than the silence that follows a missed joke. Avoid it at all costs.
The option that seems safe, and that I find in most presentations, is simply to introduce the topic and start talking. “Hello, thanks for having me, today we are going to talk about the versatility of our solar panels …” and that’s it. It is a low risk option, but also very low impact, because it favors the argument over the relationship. It is simply mediocre communication.
But there is another option that, although it is not the only one, it is the most effective in almost all cases. It’s relatively straightforward, high-impact, and one of the best ways to control stage fright while building a real relationship: by telling a story.
In a country far, far away …
We’ve talked about the science of storytelling before in interpersonal communication. Our brains evolved to tell stories long before they learned to write or describe abstract processes. The stories were forged around campfires in the caves of primitive men.
The stories work. It’s that simple. And they do it for several reasons:
1. Stories stir emotions.
Human beings are, in truth, emotional machines rather than rational: almost 90% of our decisions are made from the emotional center of the brain. Stories have elements that connect the neural structures that organize our feelings: They have characters, challenges, surprises, solutions.
Stories not only inform, they inspire and move you to action. It is of little use to “convince” with arguments if the audience does not do something about it.
2. The stories are identified with the listener
Two people who hear the same story do not hear the exact same thing. When we hear or see history, each of us connects and identifies with what is most lacking. Telling stories is, in a sense, like “speaking in tongues,” since each one takes from the story what they need.
When we listen to a good story we can say “this is just what I needed to hear,” because our brain fills in the parts it takes to make the story “ours,” as if it was made for us specifically. It is what we feel about a good book or a good movie: It speaks to us directly, moves us and changes us.
3. Stories release relational hormones
The stories connect. When two people share stories, the brain releases dopamine and oxytocin (the hormones of love and pleasure), which make it easier for both people to connect with each other, begin to think similarly, and feel good in each other’s company.
This, in turn, makes it easy for the stories to be memorable and repeatable. Almost anyone can tell the story of Noah’s Ark, but few can recite the Ten Commandments. The Commandments are probably more important, but the story of the flood is more exciting. In the end, we remember the things that made us feel.
4. Stories hold attention
Stories hold the audience’s attention, not only because they are funny or exciting in themselves (although it helps), but because our brains are designed to search for complete cycles. That is, if they start to tell us a story, we need to know what it ends up in. When we start a speech with a story and save the denouement for last, the audience will make an unconscious effort to wait for the full arc.
Stories also create their own tension, because at each step they present new emotional demands: They satisfy the “rational” brain and the “emotional” brain like nothing else, since they are the most natural form of social communication. We love hearing stories — it’s in our DNA.
5. Stories open the door of argument
Stories are a sure step toward persuasion because they facilitate emotional connection before downloading facts, numbers, and arguments. Stories prepare the space for a discussion where everyone is on the same team: They humanize and connect people and, therefore, in a sense, they bring them to the same table. They destroy the barrier of distance or mistrust; defenses and resistances are lowered.
It is to our friends that we tell our stories. For this reason, when we tell someone a story we are saying: you are my friend, I trust you. You can trust me.
What story do I choose?
Generally speaking, any story creates the relationship we seek when starting a speech. However, not all stories are the same.
1. The best are your own and real stories: Stories and anecdotes from your own life and experience, even if they do not seem so important or amazing.
You can start by saying “I ran into a lady in the elevator yesterday. I remember her wearing a gigantic hairstyle…” and elaborating on the subject that concerns you. This phrase is a great start, because it raises your curiosity, humanizes you and opens the door to the deepest matter. Of course, more emotion equals more impact: “I want to tell you what my father told me on his deathbed …” is a story of its own, real and highly emotionally charged that can soon place you in a great place to give your speech .
2. Other possible stories are true, but foreign: Stories about well-known people, famous people or human history. You can talk about Christopher Columbus, or Steve Jobs, and choose an anecdote that speaks of his character or his genius. Make it entertaining and, if possible, fun: Immerse yourself in the inflection, as if you were telling a story to a seven-year-old. Even if you want to start with your Benito Juárez or Gandhi phrase, do so by including the phrase within a story about Juárez or Gandhi. Then it will not be a phrase floating in the middle of nowhere, but the sail that loads its own ship.
3. Finally, you can choose a fictional story that allegorically conveys the point you want to get to. A story, a fable, a character from the Brothers Grimm or Aesop: These are great ways of talking about something without doing it directly. Insofar as they are stories, they maintain all the cognitive and social properties of these.
Choose the story you want, but give it a try. The next time it’s your turn to take the microphone, start with a story and unleash the power of storytelling in your favor. You will see how easy it is to take control of your style and your audience if you learn to tell stories. Good luck!