The Best Stories Sell

Ruth Sherman

We have all endured presentations where the information being delivered was dry, boring and tedious. We sit there and daydream, disengaging from the speaker and wishing for the show to end – or for the courage to get up and leave before the end. Our original reason for going was to get information that would help us to do our job better or grow our business. If we’re lucky during these types of presentations, we pick up a few pointers and do our best to incorporate them… while wondering why sitting through the presentation to get that information had to be such a chore.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The most effective, persuasive communicators and presenters tell stories and use sayings, quotes and humor during their presentations. They know that weaving this material into their speaking makes things entertaining for their audiences, illustrates points, and proves that the presenter is someone very much like them, with similar experiences and perspectives.

Where Are the Stories?
This is a big challenge for most of my clients, who do not consider themselves natural storytellers. Once we sit together during the early part of our engagement, the stories begin to flow. Whether you work with someone like me to help you tease out your many wonderful stories or not, you can find story material you can use just about everywhere. In fact, most of us are good enough storytellers already; we just haven’t figured out how to connect them to our presentations and speeches.

The first place to look is your own life. Chances are excellent that if you sit down and brainstorm, your own personal stories – the times you learned something significant – you will come up with several very good, usable anecdotes that can be included in your presentations. Personal stories by their nature are genuine, and audiences pick up on that. Audiences long for intimacy with speakers and these types of anecdotes are a terrific way to create it. The stories can be business or personal, but either way, should relate to the point being made. You don’t have to concoct some long saga; often, a simple but telling insight from your own experience will be just as effective. For example, as an opening to a presentation on business strategy to a company that had gotten well behind the curve in its Internet strategy, one speaker I worked with compared the situation with not having a phone in the house. This was a perfect and dramatic verbal illustration of just how serious the situation was at this company. It grabbed the audience and they listened raptly for the rest of the presentation. 

Someone else, in a presentation on growing a business, told the story of facing tough times in what was then her $1 million dollar business. She explained how going to a business development workshop and hearing the words "straight commission" was a transformational moment for her. Her business now grosses $30 million.

There are plenty of quotes, quips and stories available in books and online. One of the best is This is a collection aggregated from several sources that encompasses a treasure trove of quotes from famous speakers dating back to the ancient Romans and Greeks. It is cross-indexed by both quote and speaker, so if you don’t remember a quote exactly, but have some of the words or know the theme, you can still find the right story. It’s indispensable.

Newspapers and magazines are excellent resources that will often contain relevant articles. Bookmark the ones you see online and categorize them. Or, open a file on your computer, make regular “story deposits,” and watch your treasury grow.

Personal Stories Are the Best Stories
Even with all the material available to the public, the best resource for impactful storytelling is you. Personal stories are best. Many speakers create a unique, compelling story to let audiences get closer to them (sometimes referred to as a “signature story”). These stories are often about overcoming adversity or how they were once poor, but are now rich. Generally, they are designed to draw audiences closer, let them know they are not alone. These types of stories connect speaker and audience and motivate them to believe they can do it, too – whatever “it” is.

I try to not get too serious with my stories, even when making a serious point. I look for humor, particularly self-directed humor and deploy it. It can be very effective without making people squirm. There are funny and ironic things that happen to all of us almost daily and if we’re disciplined and capture them, we can end up with quite a collection.

Mold Your Story to Suit the Occasion
You should also keep in mind that a good story can usually be molded to fit the occasion. And you don’t have to be completely accurate. For example, if a relevant story or quip happened last year, but fits within the current presentation and would have more impact if it happened yesterday, then skip the time reference and let the audience assume it happened yesterday. The idea is to get the most impact with material you’ve got.  I have stories I’ve used for years that are just as relevant today as when I first told them.

Ruth Sherman, M.A., is a strategic communications consultant who prepares business leaders, celebrities, politicians and entrepreneurs to leverage critical public communication opportunities, including the development and delivery of keynote speeches, webcasts, investor presentations, awards presentations, political campaigns, media interviews and video. This article is excerpted from her new book, “Speakrets: The 30 Best, Most Effective, Most Overlooked Marketing And Personal Branding Essentials” (Norsemen Books).