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Steve Donahue is a storyteller.

He makes a living giving speeches about how to tell a story, and he does it by spending most of his time on stage telling a fascinating story about when he, many years ago, travelled across the sahara desert.
And he is very good at it.

Normally he stands on the big stages around the world,
but today he was sharing his insights in a small, intimate room full of members of APSS (Asia Professional Speakers, Singapore).

Below are my notes about some of the takeaways from the session. They will not do justice to the experience of hearing Steve talk about storytelling, but I hope it will inspire you to want to learn more about storytelling.

a) On how to use storytelling: Get the audience to talk about themselves

“When a person talks about themselves it triggers the area in the brain that is also triggered when we eat good food, when we do drugs, or when we have great sex.”

Talking about ourselves basically makes us feel good, (and it explains the addition to social media that many of us have, because even if we only realise that someone is going to read what we say/write at a later stage it stills fires up the same happy feeling in our brain.)

So Steve’s suggestion is to use a small part of your talk to have the audience members talk about themselves in regards to the topic that you are speaking on. Doing so will trigger that happiness feeling making them feel better, and that in turn will make them like your speech more.

b) About tension in storytelling

Instead of just telling your story TO the audience, invite the audience to be part of the storytelling. Doing so creates tension, and tension is good. Or as Steve said: “I am grateful for the tension.”

At the APSS event Steve and one member of the audience (Phil Merry) got into a very funny “back and forth banter” with the audience member disagreeing with the speaker in a light hearted way. A less experience speaker might have been pulled off the track by such an exchange but Steve was able to use the tension that (naturally) comes from a speaker being challenged by someone in the audience into a “spice” that made the story he was telling less predictable.

He later told us that he loved the “unpredictability of tension” so much that he has, on occasion, given the clicker for the slides to a member of the audience and instructed them to “click when you think it’s time for the next slide”! He explained that it sometimes meant he had to rush the slides like crazy and sometimes the slides would never be clicked, but he also revealed that the audience loves the unpredictability that the handing over of the “power of the clicker” creates.

I guess you could say that “tension creates attention”.

By involving the audience he also gets “stories about the story”, ie side stories that he can now tell about when something happened when he told his story at some earlier event.

(One of these stories includes how he tells this story about walking through the Sahara and how he at one point thinks that he is going to die. He then tells the story about how one audience member came up to him after the speech and with fear in his eyes asked him: “So did you survive?” …)

c) About the rhythm of storytelling.

A core piece of Steve Donahue’s speech is when he straps on an African drum and continues to drum on the drum as he tells the story of crossing the Sahara. By changing the rhythm of his drumming he changes the intensity of his storytelling. If the story is just tagging along then the drumming is slow and subtle. When he comes to the more dramatic sections of the story the intensity of the drumming is increased – and when he comes to a particularly dramatic part where he thinks that he is going to die the drumming suddenly ………… STOPS ……..

He doesn’t mention it in his speech, but the drumming is a great way to get people to think about how to use speed, pauses and volume to create variations when telling a story (something that many speakers are not very good at doing.)
d) Narrative Function

Steve also talked about “narrative function” the ability that our brain has to turn events in our lives into stories that we can tell ourselves and others about what we have been though. Steve encouraged us as speakers to look through our speeches to see if we in them have stories that will help our audiences to create their own stories about what has been important in their lives.

Basically telling us that: Our job as speakers is to tell stories that inspire our audiences to create their own stories about their own life.

When you look at it that way you realise that the profession of speaking is not about the stories that we tell, But the stories that we help to create.

e) Thoughts on storytelling.

Steve also took the time to point out that storytelling should not be about giving people answers. The best stories are the stories that instead helps to create questions. Question that will then push the audience to go and find their own answers.

But perhaps the most interesting part of his speech was when he explained that he used to tell this long story about traveling though Sahara as a story about change. But after years of telling it he got sick of standing on stage telling it over and over again. He contemplated not using the story anymore – that story that had been his “signature story” for years and years.

Instead he did something very unusual and – from a storytelling perspective – very brave: he then started mentioning from the stage that he had become sick of telling the same story over and over again.

And then, to re-energize not only the story, but himself as a person, he went back to Sahara to do the trip one more time. But this time with a young korean man as the “main character”, because it turned out that the book that Steve had written about his first original journey as a young man had become a huge hit in South Korea selling 100 000+ copies in Korea alone.

By “redoing” the journey with a young korean man as “him”, Steve not only got new material for his speech but he also re-connected to his original story. Something that made him stop using it as a story about “change” and instead as a story about storytelling.

And now the story – and the speech! – is better than ever.

As speakers we all have our “signature stories” (the equivalent of a rock band’s hit songs) but telling them over and over again risk making us grow tired of these stories. Hearing Steve talk about how he was able to revisit his old story to find new meanings in it was very powerful and inspiring to me.

If you are a speaker, see if you can re-visit your “signature story” to find new meaning or symbolism in it that can re-erengise you to tell that story in en even more meaningful way.

Summary: Storytelling is one of the most powerful tool that we speakers have in our toolbox, and yet I am often negatively surprised by how many speakers seem to forget to include great storytelling into their presentation. Therefore it was such a joy to, for once, get to listen to a two hour presentation where storytelling was front, back and centre.

Thank you Steve.

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Picture from when I was fortunate to get a little extra time with Steve over a beer before he flew back to Canada.

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Today I meet with Bob Mittelsdorf, an experienced trainer on Project Management for 20+ years who was interested to learn from me how he could transition to a keynote speaker. (I more or less only do keynote speeches, and mostly at global or international conferences for global audiences.)

Now let’s start by making one thing clear: Being a trainer is not, in any way, easier, simpler or less “professional” than being a keynote speaker.
If anything it is harder to be a great trainer than a great keynote speaker.

But for some reason “keynote speaking” as a nicer ring than “trainer” for many and many trainers want to transition to becoming keynote speakers.

In these times of Summer Olympics let me make a comparison.

Being a keynote speaker is like being a “100 meter runner”: It is a “main event”, full of energy and focus . It’s over in a flash – and the performers (let’s call them that) are some of the biggest stars of the event.

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Being a trainer is like being a “3000 metres steeplechase runner”: It’s hard, tedious work, it drains you of energy and goes on for a long time – and the practitioners are usually not stars at all, even though their achievement in many ways is bigger than their more famous colleagues who run for 100 meters.

I totally get why trainers want to become keynote speakers, and many trainers are very well suited to become keynote speakers (since they tend to have a very deep understanding of their subject) but at the same time we have to remember that being a trainer is not the same as being a keynote speaker. (Just like a 3000 meter runner can not just suddenly decide to compete in 100 meter sprints.)

Keynoting and training are different, which means that selling yourself as a Keynote speaking is different from selling yourself as a training.
But how?

That is the purpose of this post, and I will illustrate it with what I said to Bob.

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As an expert trainer on Project Management Bob knows exactly how to talk to Project Managers about Project Management.
The problem is that there is a very, very slim change that the organisers of a keynote speech at a big annual conference for a big company decides that “Project Management” should be the theme for their external keynote speaker.

Not because Project Management is not important – hell, if you ask me project management is what gets things done in a company, so of course it is a very important message.
But my point is that that is not the kind of theme that people who organises annual conferences think that the conference should focus its keynote speech on.

I said to Bob: “People outside project management do not care about project management, so you need to redefine what you talk on to make it a more universal subject.”

Bob said: “So I should call it “Project management for managers?” or “The business of project management?”

And I replied: “No. You are not allowed to use the words “project management”. Not in your title – not even in your speech.”

The reason is that a keynote speech (most of the time) benefits from leaving the “practical” and instead speaks to the audience from a more general and higher level.

If you are a trainer who train on “Presentation skills” then your keynote should be on “Making an impact” or “The Power of being Understood.”

If your theme as a trainer is “team building” then your keynote should be on “The Power of Together.”

If your theme as a trainer is “Diversity” – then your theme as a keynote should be “From Man to Human”.

And so on.

I challenged Bob to write a full 45 minute keynote speech on project management that did not mention the words “project” nor the word “management” a single time.

I suggested the title “How Business Gets Done” for his speech and that he then would use all the knowledge he has about project management to build a speech around examples of how successful things get done (from the chaos of creating 7-course dinners at 3-star kitchens to buildings of airports and the Great Wall of China (which all are examples of different types of project management, of course.)

I asked him how he would describe what project management is for someone who has never heard the phrase and Bob smiled and mentioned a quote he has in his office from Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh). It says: “Brains first then hard work.”

That’s what project management is. (Eeyore says it during a story where Winnie and friends need to build something in one of the Winnie the Pooh stories.

I encouraged Bob to go out and find inspiring stories of successful companies, managers or other people who had succeeded by planning and then executing something and to then talk about these examples with his project management knowledge as support but in a style that inspires people to create great things, not to feel that they just listened to a training on project management.

In a simplified way you can say that “Trainers train” and “speakers inspire”. So in a way you could say that trainers get people to learn and speakers get people to want to learn.

And that’s why selling a keynote is different from selling a training course. You are not selling the training. You are selling inspiration.

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If you are a speaker and I asked you: “Why did you become a speaker?” what would you reply?

The answer to that question is more important than you might think.

Today I had a speaking mentoring sessions with Singapore based speaker David Goldwich.
During our session I asked David: “Why did you become a speaker?”

He replied something like: “”I want to help and inspire people”…”

Later in our session we were talking about stories that he uses in his speech and he said: “I have this story that I tell from when I was a lawyer” and then he continues to tell me this story:

In his words”
“When I was a lawyer in Florida many years ago a man came in to my office and said that he wanted to sue his parents. As a lawyer I am supposed to help him not only take the case to court, but to do my very best to help him win over his parents. But I could not do it. Instead I ended up counselling the son and his parents to help them solve their underlaying problem. It was during this process that I realised that was not meant to be a lawyer but that I should take my communication- , negotiations- and story telling-skills and help people in other ways than just fighting it out in court.”

David told me this story as an example of how to tell a good story. It was one of his “story telling examples”.

I stopped him and said:

“This is not “a story”; this is “THE story!” – as in this is the moment that defined your life, the reason you changed careers and created a life of being a trainer and speaker.

It is not “a story” – it is “the purpose”. It is the reason you became a speaker.”

He, of course, knew that that event was what got him onto the path of becoming a speaker, but over the years that event had become more and more of an example of story telling, and less and less a reminder of why he became a speaker.

Some people might think that speakers become speakers for the money, for the fame, for the kick you get from being on stage, but the truth is that there if very often a life changing event that got us into speaking. Or a message that the speaker in his (or hers) heart thinks that the rest of the world needs to hear.

In my case I started my speaking career 20+ years ago (1994) when I, as a 27 year old student, saw the potential of the Internet and got more and more frustrated about how companies at the time had no idea about what the Internet was. I just felt that they had to know. I felt that the world would be better if companies grasped this opportunity to change and become more efficient. (I know it might sound hard to believe that business people would be unaware of the Internet but in the mid 1990s that’s how it was…) Over the years the themes that I feel companies and people need to understand has changed, but it is that urge to make the world better by making the world see what it does not yet see that drives me to speak.

What got you into speaking? What’s that message that you felt had to be heard by the world?

(Re-)Connect to that powerful force that once got you into speaking and I promise you that you will become a better speaker.