Storytelling for Speakers – Beware the Dark Side

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Many people have written about the importance of storytelling for speakers from the perspective of the audience. They remind us that packaging information and ideas in the form of a story make it more memorable. But I have never seen an article warning presenters about how the stories they tell could be holding them back from the success and impact they want. The dark side of storytelling relates to their power to create and sustain self-limiting beliefs, and it’s this that I’d like to discuss in this short article.

Let me start by telling you a true story

Once upon a time…

I was reviewing the recording of a session with my coach when I was confronted with an all too personal example of how one of the stories I was telling was preventing me from progressing with my business.  – Scary or what!

It all started when she asked me about my long-term goals.  Without a pause,  I heard myself launch into a familiar story which justified my current avoidance of future planning.

It went something like this. “I hear what you are saying, but I have a problem with planning too far ahead.  I’m just not a natural forward planner, and I’ve always struggled with goal setting – it never seems to work for me.”

Hearing myself say this, and then listening to my coach reflect back that she had heard me tell this same story at least three times in the last couple of months, stopped me in my tracks.


Because I suddenly realised that this “story” simply wasn’t accurate.  In that moment, it was as if a little voice inside my head had asked me the question, “Is this true?”  When I took the time to reflect, I began to I recall several times from my past when I had set, and achieved, seemingly unattainable goals.

The more I thought about this, the more I could see that what I was telling my coach (and myself) was a well-rehearsed “story” caused by one bad experience which I was now generalising to my whole life – I was allowing an embarrassing failure to overwrite a lifetime of successes.

Why Am I Sharing This Story with You?

I am writing this article because, if this sort of self-limiting belief story can happen to me, then it could happen to you too.  I wanted to share this “wake up call” in the hope that it will prompt you to think about your own stories and look at whether a) they are correct, and b) they helping you grow or are holding you back.

When it comes to thinking about storytelling for speakers, there are two types of story you need to consider. The first and the most obvious are the tales you tell your audience to help them engage with and understand your messages.   The second are the ones you tell about yourself. The ones that become more real with every telling until the point that you can’t separate fact from fiction.  Have you ever said any of these stories

  • “I’ve never been a good speaker!”
    – Do you really mean that you’ve never given a speech that someone hasn’t enjoyed, even just a little?
  • “Every time I try to speak in front of an audience, my mind goes blank, and I stand there unable to think of what to say next.”
    – Is this true?  Can you not think of at least one time when you spoke without drying up?
  • “I’m an introvert, so I can never be a successful speaker.”
    – Try telling that to one of the most famous introverts and successful presenters – Steve Jobs!

So What Can You Do?

1: Get Curious

As I discovered myself, you can’t fix this disempowering habit if you are not aware that you have it. Step one is you get curious about the stories you tell about yourself to yourself and others. Set the intention to make a note of them as they arise.

2: Reality Check Your Stories

Press your mental “pause button” and put on your investigator’s hat.  Find a quiet space where you can look at the facts and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this story really true?
  • What evidence do I have to support this story?
  • When is this story not true? Look for times in the past when you have done something (no matter how small) that contradicts your precious story.

3: Start Telling a More Accurate Story

In exploring this topic, I came up with the analogy that our thinking is like the software running on our computer.  It works well for a while, but eventually, it becomes outdated and needs an upgrade.   Are you still running Windows 3.4 or have you upgraded to Windows 10? Once we have identified stories that are not helping us, we need to replace them with an updated version.


Old Story (inaccurate /unresourceful): “I’ll never be a good presenter.”

New Story (more accurate and resourceful): “My presentation skills aren’t perfect, but they are constantly improving with each speech.”

Now comes the hardest part of all.  Set the intention that, every time you catch yourself telling the old story, you stop yourself and replace it with the new, more resourceful version. Remember, the more you tell the updated story, to yourself and others, the more comfortable you feel about it and the more believable it is to you.

Good Luck

Life, like storytelling for speakers, doesn’t always give us a smooth ride. Inevitably, we face challenges and overcome most of them. In doing so, we become stronger and wiser with each hurdle. Take comfort from the fact that you are not alone on this roller coaster journey and remember to ask for help from your fellow travellers.

Gavin Meikle

The Presentation Doctor

This blog post has been re-published by kind permission of Gavin Meikle – View the original post .


Published On: 30th Oct 2017

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