A shaggy black dog.

Don’t Tell Stories!

I keep reading and hearing advice urging speakers — whether they be presenting at small gatherings or large conferences — to tell stories. 

Bad Hair Day

I recently had the misfortune to attend a presentation where the speaker kept going on about his hair. Apparently, his hair is so remarkable that it has been the spark for a whole series of events in his life, each of which has supposedly generated a life lesson that he was keen to pass on. 

But I couldn’t tell you what those life lessons were. He lost me at his hair. 

I noticed that he had a receding hairline, but otherwise his hair seemed quite unremarkable, and I don’t recall his hairline featuring in his stories anyway. So I didn’t believe his stories. I am sure they had been embellished significantly for the purposes of his presentation. 

His force-feeding of fake facts into a narrative whose only purpose was to highlight some other point told me nothing other than that he wasn’t authentic. 

So I stopped listening except to play word bingo. That’s the game where you make a list of which words that you guess the speaker will say, and then score points when s/he does indeed say them. I awarded myself bonus points when he said “micro-aggression.” 

Inside Comments

Admittedly, this was a fairly unusual case of hopeless storifying. More common is the presentation that begins with a series of inside comments about a city or sports team. With so many details missing, this just ends up sounding like a conversation between two drunks in a bar: 

“Barney’s, eh?!” 

“Those spring rolls!” 

“That place is still there!” 

“Go, some animals!” 

Sorry, but if I wanted to listen to drunks in a bar, I’d have gone to the place down the road. 

Mental Doodles

The first time I was in the audience for the presentation of such incoherent babbling, I wondered what on earth was going on. Then I realized that it’s become the norm because stories are supposed to make the audience relate. 

Well, you’re not relating to me, old chum. In fact, you’re being about as interesting as stale beer and about as original as the cheese you squirt out of a tube. 

That’s why I started playing word bingo at such presentations. While they remain incomprehensible, these insider comments have now become so predictable that often the only thing I can’t predict is the name of the animals that apparently should “go” somewhere (and that’s only because I don’t know which animal represents every sports franchise or university in the nation). 

I have, however, occasionally found myself wondering where all these animals are supposed to go. Is there some gigantic farm somewhere, perhaps run by Old MacDonald, that houses animals run out of sports teams? 

Honestly, if you are going to say “Go, some animals!” for no apparent reason — you are at the beginning of a talk about some aspect of law, remember? — at least have the decency to give the poor things some directions. 

Shaggy Dog Stories

I have been to so many conferences and events over the years that I have lost count. I have many colleagues in the same position. Do any of us remember the stories told? No. 

In fact, attempting to recount the experience just a few days later might go like this — and that’s if you’re lucky: 

“Hear anything interesting at that conference last week?” 

“Yes. Apparently, if you do x, then y will likely happen. Never thought about that before. The guy who made that point was saying it had something to do with a big black dog, but I forget exactly what the dog had to do with it.” 

Much more typical, though, is the conversation that goes like this: 

“Hear anything interesting at that conference last week?” 

“Well, I thought one guy sounded like he had a good point to make. But then he went into some story about a big black dog, and I kind of lost track.” 

Stories Exclude

The thing is that telling a story is not the way to make an interesting point. It’s a way, certainly, but — unless you’re an excellent story-teller who really knows your audience — it’s actually more likely to be a loser than a winner. 

There’s a very simple reason for that. 

Stories about dogs appeal to dog lovers. They are of little interest to anyone else. Some allegory about a car is utterly tedious to a non-petrol-head. And if you don’t really know very much about cars, the true petrol-heads in the audience will think either that you’re an idiot or that you lack authenticity. Either way, you are not to be trusted. 

So telling a story about something unrelated to the conference, event, or publicized topic of your talk will turn off many — quite possibly, a majority — of your listeners. 

Focus

Yet there is a topic in which all your listeners are interested. Hint: it’s the subject of the conference or presentation! After all, that’s why those people bothered to attend. So talk about it! 

If you are planning to speak somewhere when I’m in the audience, please do me a favor and focus on whatever point it is that you are trying to make. Then work out how best to make that point. 

Please don’t just assume that telling a story is the way to go. In most cases, it really isn’t.