Over the months of Covid, I've been secretly writing a book on effective public speaking and communication, with an angle toward helping communicators more effectively declare the majesty of Christ.
As a sample of my work, the following two posts highlight the essential importance of telling stories and illustrations that anchor your message in the minds and hearts of your audience. I hope you enjoy these thoughts!
Studies have shown that an audience forgets approximately 50% of a speaker's content by the end of the presentation or speech. The following morning, 85% of the speaker's content is irretrievably lost in the ether. What remains? The 15% that's carved into the hearer's memory are the stories and illustrations of the speaker.
Intuitively, you know this is true. Consider the last speech, sermon, or presentation you heard. What do you remember? A vivid story, right? Or a visual illustration? It seems the human brain is hardwired to remember concrete examples above abstract concepts. Of course, the speaker's sweet spot is employing great stories and illustrations that highlight important concepts. This gives a presentation lasting power.
In my opinion, the greatest genius at using stories and illustrations was Jesus. He never lacked for handy visual aids and vignettes to nail home an important idea. 2000 years later, his stories remain memorable and understandable. For example, who hasn't heard of the Good Samaritan? Or the Prodigal Son? These stories continue to resonate everywhere they're told.
However, not all stories are equal. An overly long story may be 1000 mg of melatonin, while a "shorter story" is a shot of espresso. At other times, we simply have no personal story to draw from our quiver that underpins our point. Therefore, it's also helpful to leverage Story's shorter cousin, the illustration. Once again, Jesus was the master of illustration. He borrows from common items around him: sheep, mustard seeds, fish, bread, wine, vines, fig trees, houses on sand ... even a camel going through the eye of a needle! All are pithy, visual, and memorable. Perhaps we underestimate how important it is to put our thoughts into word pictures?
Let me propose Four Purposes for using a story or illustration, and why you should salt and pepper every presentation with them (purposes 1 and 2 are below; purposes 3 and 4 are in the next post).
4 Purposes of a Good Story or Illustration
1. A Story or Illustration Will Make Your Idea Clear.
If your audience has a puzzled expression on their face, they're not tracking with your thought. You need to give them an example, so they can fit the peg into the hole. The best way is a story or illustration. For example, I speak in many Christian contexts. One particular point I enjoy making is that the way to change the world isn't simply through the addition of changed lives, but the spiritual multiplication of those lives. Let me explain:
"If I could gather an audience of 1,000 people for you, and you would take the privilege of telling them about Jesus ... then tomorrow I'd gather a new group of 1,000, and so on, day after day, ... how long would it take you to tell the entire world about Jesus?"
The answer: 19,000 years (assuming no population growth and people would live that long)! Well, that's deflating. Yet, on the other hand ...
"What if instead you told just three people about Jesus and invested an entire year grounding these three new believers. Including yourself, there are now four of you. The next year, the four of you repeat the process, each telling and grounding three new people over the year. Now there are 16 of you! And so on, year after year. How long will it take for you to reach the entire world?"
Surprisingly, a mere 17 years! It's the magic of exponential growth. It looks like this:
This illustration may be convincing (to math majors), but what I do next is compelling and it values people tangibly:
"I need a volunteer to come up front. Ok, John, thank you. Here's what I want you to do. Your job is to run around the room and slap as many hands as you can, in just 10 seconds. Everyone in the room, please raise your hand high because John is going to try to slap as many hands as possible! Ready? Go!"
As you can imagine, John catapults himself around the room, frantically trying to slap hands. In a room of 150 people, John can slap 15 hands in 10 seconds, but the remaining 90% of the room goes untouched. And John is huffing and puffing at the attempt! I continue ...
"John, come back up here with me. Let's do this again ... but this time, a little differently. Audience, if John slaps your hand, you now possess the exact same mission as John ... you must go slap as many hands in the room as you can. So, to be clear: if your hand gets slapped at any point, you essentially join John on his mission! Ready? Go!
Joyous bedlam busts out. Newly "slapped disciples" of John jump chairs and lunge to reach every hand in the room. And you know what? In just 10 seconds, the mission is accomplished. And the thrill, the glory of communal engagement is fever-pitched. In fact, it can be challenging to calm the crowd! What's the point? Multiplication always beats addition. Great Leaders don't just get people to follow – they get followers to lead.
2. A Story or Illustration Will Make Your Idea Memorable.
I often tell my audience that, as odd as it may sound, "God wants to spend time with you." And I mean it. I say, "I think I can convince you from the Bible..." and then use several verses to drive home the point (Genesis 3:9; James 4:8, John 4:23 - note how God pursues the individual). Yet many in the audience remain unconvinced, until I tell the following story (which you can read in fuller detail here) ... I say:
"Ok, I think I can convince you by telling the story of my young son, Daniel. Late one cold Thursday night, I drove home from campus after a long day. The lights were out in our house, as Paula, Daniel, and Lauren were asleep in their beds. Wanting to wind down, I crept up to our bedroom closet and quietly grabbed my slippers. But as hard as I tried, I couldn't get them onto my feet. So I flipped on the dim light in the closet and saw the problem.
Earlier that day, Daniel missed his Daddy. He wanted to be near me. So, he went into his closet, grabbed his little slippers, took them to my closet and inserted them into mine! As I sat on the edge of the bed, staring at this sight, I was overwhelmed with love and affection for my boy! O! O! how I wanted to be with him!
Suddenly, it was like God tapping me on the back: "Hey Dan, how do you think it makes me feel when you attempt to take your little slipper and come to my closet and slip it inside of mine?" Wow. In that moment, I was undone. To think that the God of the Universe (who doesn't need me or you) would want to spend time with me, the way I longed to spend time with Daniel. Too much. I was overwhelmed. What a privilege we have to spend time with the God of the universe, via His Word.
Gotcha. ☺ That story makes my point memorable.
Next, Purposes 3 and 4!