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To be a leader, you need followers, right?

To pull in followers you need to connect with people and draw them towards you and your goal.

The stories you tell in your speeches and in your conversations are your primary tool for doing that. Here’s a three-point plan to develop stories for that one purpose – to connect with others who may support you or help you.

  • Prepare. Who are the targets of your stories? List them in categories – workers, society or church members, parents. Then write down what you think they want to hear from you on this occasion. Are they looking for information, encouragement, motivation, reassurance? Develop a general idea of what needs to be said and the tone you will use as you say it.
  • Select. Once you have your outline select some stories that fit your message. If possible list more than you need, then choose the best. But keep the others in mind – as you are speaking you might find the perfect place for one to illustrate a point you are trying to clarify.
  • Focus.Run through your chosen stories, silently or aloud, See how well each one fits the point it is to illustrate. Work to improve that fit. Add tiny details to help listeners to identify with the story. Change something to make it better fit your purpose. (If it works better for this audience with a young woman as the focal point, rather than an older woman, make that change.) Add a touch of humor, preferably directed at yourself. Put in some emotion, reflect the emotions of the audience right now.

Adding stories connects you in a personal way. They reduce the distance between the leader and those being led. They make the leader more human – no longer is he simply  ‘An Important Person’, he has made himself multi-dimensional and even perhaps slightly vulnerable. He has shared stories that show him as human rather that impersonal. He is one of them rather than a suit from the big city.

Of course, you might be the leader of a small group where everyone knows you and a great deal about you. Then your stories will illustrate examples of strengths and accomplishments that they might not be aware of. The Prepare, Select, Focus system works equally well here.

The point of connecting as a leader is to have others share your vision and your goals, and to have them understand the why and the how. Stories make that connection easier and more comfortable. You are offering easy steps on a well-lit pathway rather than a leap of faith into the darkness.

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As a Toastmaster my stories usually need to fit the purpose of illustrating my speech. Occasionally I have the luxury of telling a story, just to tell a story. So I can look at stories in two ways.

The first is as an illustration to support the purpose of my speech. I’ll have gone through the selection process to choose a speech that is relevant to my audience and, perhaps, to the occasion. My choice of stories to illustrate the main points is the next step in the process.

The second is to tell a story just for its own sake. I still have to choose a story that is relevant to my audience and to the occasion – a heart-warming Christmas story goes down well in December but would be rather out of place in summer time.

So relevance to the audience and the occasion is important whether the story is a stand-alone or an illustration.  If you belong to a Toastmaster club within a company or organization you’ll have a more homogenous group than if it is an after hours club where there can be much wider differences in age, gender, education, beliefs and interests.  Huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’ stories aren’t going to go down too well if there are many urban women in the audience. Jane Austen-type stories aren’t going to work well in an audience of outdoorsmen.

I myself am not interested in huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’ but I’ve heard stories based on them that have come across very well. It isn’t that you can’t tell those stories, it’s that you adapt them to a wider audience. It isn’t about the big fish you caught, it’s about the outdoor experience, the scenery, the forest – how that experience enriched you.

So your goal is not to brag about the 20 pound brown bass (or whatever) that you caught, it is to show how you enrich your life. Almost everyone would like to enrich their life, it’s a common human goal.

By changing your own goal for the story you can connect with and pull in more of your audience because you are addressing goals they all share. Think of the person in your audience who is least like you – different age, gender, education. What would make that person interested in your story?

The closer you can align your story with common goals the more your audience will really listen and absorb the point you want to make.

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I used to think that making a speech was all about me, the speaker, making a speech. It’s not. The speech is all about the gift you are giving to your audience. Your audience are giving you the precious gift of their time as they listen to you. The least you can do in return is give them the best gift you can.

Most audiences want to accept your gift. They are waiting to enjoy, to learn, to experience. They are waiting to connect with you, hoping that your story will in some way enrich them. From other, experienced, story tellers and speakers I have picked up some of the secrets of connecting with an audience and they are worth sharing:

1. Be generous with eye contact. If someone seems even more into your story than the others, give them more eye contact again.

2. Don’t aggrandize yourself. If someone did wonderfully well in your story, don’t let it be you. On the other hand, if someone made a dumb mistake or learned a lesson the hard way, that could be you.

3. Vary your stories. Be aware of your favourite themes and don’t continually be beating that drum. When you stand up to speak your audience shouldn’t be thinking “Oh, it’s Joe. It’ll be ‘How make money in the stock market’ again.” Connect to your audience through the element of surprise. “Oh, it’s Joe. I wonder what he’ll have for us tonight.”

4. Connect by leaving the podium if you can and standing before the audience with nothing to obstruct the flow of energy between you.

5. Be emotionally in the moment as you tell the story. You are not telling it as much as feeling it. When you come to a part where you mention an emotion – fear, pain, happiness – feel that emotion. The more strongly you can feel it, even if it almost brings tears to your eyes, the more strongly the audience will also feel it and respond.

The response of the audience is the indicator of how well your story went across. It’s not just the applause, it’s the facial expressions, the smiles, the tears, the look that says “I really enjoyed that”.

If you can do that with your story you have truly connected.

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