Grabbing your audience at the beginning is of primary importance to any speaker. If you decide to start with a story you will, naturally, want to present something compelling and interesting, something that will resonate with your audience. Keep your story brief and to the point; don’t ramble or digress. Keep it relevant and make sure that the subject matter is related to your speech and your message. It can have a moral, if you like, or it can just be a story that illustrates an issue, problem, challenge or success related to the message in your presentation.
The key to telling a story is: Keep it simple. Provide just enough details to keep your listeners interested without overwhelming them with so much unnecessary detail that you lose them.
Your guiding mantra when employing a story in your introduction should be: Grab their attention, don’t put them to sleep.
So how do you choose an appropriate story to begin your presentation? Sometimes, the answer presents itself. If you’re talking about workplace safety, for example, you might want to begin with a story of a company’s or individual’s choice to overlook a safety feature that resulted injury to others.
If your tale is going to be a cautionary one, however, it is important that the lesson be memorable, not mundane. Try to get an extraordinary story — skip the ordinary ones. Telling about a store manager’s negligence that resulted in a patron’s broken wrist is hardly earth-shattering or unique. On the other hand, telling about an engineer who overlooked a safety check that resulted in a missile explosion, certainly is earth-shattering (almost literally!), and your audience is much more likely to respond. You don’t have to shoot for the “if it bleeds it leads” scenario, but you don’t want your story to fall flat, either.
Leave ’em laughing or gasping … not yawning
Too often, I’ve seen speakers who attempt to shock and awe their audiences get to their big punchline (“…and it turned out that the vending machine was empty the whole time!”) only to have the audience yawn when they should have been gasping.
Generally speaking, you want to tell a story about something that actually happened — audiences can sense when you’re snowing them. If you were personally involved or witnesses the occurrence, all to the better.
Finally, when you start to relate your story, it is important that you do everything you can to conjure up the “magic of the moment.” You want your story to be suspenseful or interesting, so telling it as if you’ve said it a hundred times before isn’t going to cut it. You have to lead up to the surprising moments as if you didn’t know they were coming. You have to be shocked at whatever is shocking. You need to empathize with anyone who is hurt or wronged in the course of your story. Become emotionally involved in the story you’re telling and the audience will be with you all the way.