Applying My 5 Secrets of Captivating Stories

A story from my son's Field Day helped me connect with high school students

A story from my son’s Field Day helped me connect with high school students

I may be an open-book extrovert, but I still find stories hard to tell. They bring me back to elementary school days when my nerves got the best of me: voice cracking, knees shaking, sweaty palms….

For the practice year following my Leopold training, I set a goal of getting comfortable with storytelling by practicing the storytelling skills I read about over this year. I decided to use stories regularly in my class lectures and include at least one in every presentation I made on and off campus.

My best opportunity for practice came with an invitation to give a talk at an honors society induction for a large preparatory school in my area. My charge was to motivate the students to continue along their positive academic path, go to college, and succeed in life. Clearly, they were already highly motivated. How could I inspire them further? I thought about advising them to study hard, reach out to faculty when they don’t understand, and get extra help when they need it. But this didn’t seem very inspirational.

I decided on a story about my son, Solomon, that illustrated the message that in life it’s ok to fail  — it’s just not ok not to learn from failure. I set the stage by citing statics on college graduation that are pretty bleak: only 40% of undergraduates complete their degrees in 4 years; and this only increases to 60% by 6 years. I emphasized that these statistics hold for honors students at the best colleges in the country. I then juxtaposed this negative message with one of hope. I gave them a hook: that I knew the secret to college success. I led up to the “reveal” of this secret by using the story about my son to illustrate how failure, even failure in a kindergarten race, could be an opportunity to learn and succeed another day.

I practiced the story enough times that on the day of the talk I spoke without my notes and was able to act out my son’s stubbornness, his clenched fists when he lost, and my reactions. I was able to make eye contact and see that most audience members were sitting on the edge of their seats, eyes wide open. I used three well-positioned pauses to emphasize my main points: the first right after my story (to let listeners absorb the lesson of the story), the second after a quote by Michael Jordan, and the third right before the big “reveal” of my secret. A week later I received a letter from the headmaster that I think speaks to the power of storytelling. According to him, the students were “effusive in their praise and especially appreciated the delivery of ideas that were sprinkled with generous doses of humor. They really listened.”

Have you tried adding stories to your presentations or writing? What has been the most difficult part of this process?  If it is simply creating them, you’re not alone.  See my next post for ideas on prompts that can help with this process. Leave a comment.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.