How to Identify and Tell Your Most Powerful Stories

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Nancy Duarte for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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When I ask executives what their favorite speech is, Steve Jobs’s Stanford commencement address is always at the top of the list. Many think of Jobs’s talk as their favorite because it is incredibly moving  thanks to the stories it contains.

Execs love to hear talks like this, but few are comfortable delivering them. Why? Because great stories expose our flaws and our struggles. This is what makes them inspiring, and not sharing them is such a missed opportunity to connect with your audience.

When my firm helps executives craft talks that will persuade and forge bonds with listeners, we often have to help them recall or dig up latent stories that come from a deep place of personal conviction. Over the years, we’ve used effective techniques for unearthing these personal stories which can then be cataloged, added into communications, and effectively delivered. Here are some of the techniques we rely on again and again:

Trigger Stories Through Memory Recall

Most people try to recall memories chronologically when they’re developing a story for a talk, but there’s another way to conjure up deeper, dormant stories.

Sit down with a notepad and think through the nouns that are important to you  the people, places, and things that have shaped your life. (Yes, I really mean sit down with a notepad and paper — studies show that you’re more likely to be creative when you’re writing than when you’re typing.)

  • People. Write your name in the center of the paper, and start drawing out types of relationships: family, friends, coworkers, and so on. Each time you draw a connective line between you and someone else, think through the relational dynamics and emotions. There’s a story in there!
  • Places. Get as specific as you can in recalling places that matter to you: the middle school hallways, the cabin at camp, the soccer field, that mountain, the ophthalmologist’s office, the red hatchback — whatever. Use spatial recollection to move through each location, neighborhood, and room. Retracing your movements will trigger scenes, sounds, and scents. It will dislodge memories that will reveal to you long forgotten events and interactions.
  • Things. Take note of objects or items that have symbolic meaning in your life: gifts, awards, books — any items you’ve loved. Sketch pictures of these symbols and recall what makes them emotionally charged. These items don’t hold meaning for others, but they do for you. Why?

When you’re done with the above exercises, look at the story kernels you’ve come up with and write one-line summaries of them. Some of the tales you’ve accessed may be too personal to share, but you may uncover some anecdotes that will become the basis of an important story you can return to again and again.

Create a Story Catalog

Once you’ve curated a host of stories that you can use in various types of situations, take your list and create a personal story catalog that you can turn to.

Create and manage this list in the way you work. It could be a journal or a spreadsheet with summaries. You can use categories to sort by situation, theme, mood, or moral. Use whatever categorization makes the most sense for you.

Many people pull from the most poignant part of their story catalog when they’re staring down mortality (like Jobs was). Instead of waiting until your hand is forced, take stock of the important stories in your life right now, and catalog them. Having these stories easily accessible to you without an accompanying crisis can help you to live life more fully and have a greater impact on others.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Nancy Duarte has published her latest book, Illuminate, with coauthor Patti Sanchez. Duarte is also the author of the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, as well as two award-winning books on the art of presenting, Slide:ology and Resonate. Her team at Duarte, Inc., has created more than a quarter of a million presentations for its clients and teaches public and corporate workshops on presenting. Follow Duarte on Twitter: @nancyduarte.


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