Do you know how to tell a story that will fascinate any audience, yet also promote your interests and objectives?

Based on my experience last night, story-telling is a lost art. And this failure to communicate could be hurting your business.

Here’s the background. I was serving as a judge for a professional speaking competition organized by Toronto speakers’ bureau, Speakers Gold. The event, “So You Think You Can Speak,” brought together 10 aspiring public speakers, all of whom had survived a gruelling audition process.

We heard three-minute speeches from self-made business masterminds who told us success is a state of mind. Motivational speakers dared us to go out and chase the things we really want. And we heard from “survivors” who had overcome weight and self-esteem issues, tragic life events, and serious physical disabilities.

Nonetheless, I found few of these stories moving. Most of them engaged either my heart or my head, but not both.

As one of three judges, I got to comment on each performance, much like Randy, Paula and Simon (or their motley successors) on American Idol. I soon found my remarks adding up to a common theme: these people had great posture and voice control, but they didn’t know how to sell a story.

Some encouraged us to think more positive thoughts. Others talked about their own success, without providing details. Some spoke of the struggles they’d faced, without mentioning what they were. Only one speaker managed to tell a consistent story that explained his problems, how he overcame them, and how other people (i.e., you) can overcome their own similar challenges.

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? It’s the essence of all good stories or marketing case studies. Start with a protagonist. Establish their problem. Then tell us how he or she beat those challenges – and how we can, too.

Your marketing materials should follow similar narratives. Don’t just tell me your organic cleaning product can scour my kitchen clean. Show me – by explaining how your product helped a person just like me. Empower me to identify with the protagonist in your story.

My message to all 10 speakers had a common thrust. If you want to engage my interest, tell me a story. A story should have three things: a beginning (e.g., here’s a character with a problem), a middle (character fights back), and an ending (here’s how you can win fights like this, too).

Most of the speakers had trouble hitting even two of these marks. Either they didn’t give us a clear idea of what their challenge was, or they didn’t explain what they did to fight back, or they told us all about their journey but forget to leave a space in the story for the audience to identify with. Without concrete specifics that help put memorable pictures into our head, it’s hard to remember another person’s story. If they’re not including us in the story, there’s no reason to remember it.

A few speakers defended themselves, saying, “We only had three minutes.” Heh. Watch any shampoo ad. Procter & Gamble does it in 60 seconds.

Kier Barker didn’t need excuses. Using a cane and the back of a carefully-placed chair, he limped up to the stage and told us about being born with spina bifida, a neurological disorder that permanently damages the spinal column. He wasn’t expected to leave the hospital. He wasn’t ever supposed to walk. He wasn’t ever expected to overcome a severe stutter.

But Barker beat them all. Now he tells his story to help other people overcome the obstacles in their lives. He turned his experiences into parables for us all: don’t just dream, create a plan; words hurt; dreams matter. He packed a lifetime of lessons into 180 seconds – and helped us see the world through his eyes.

Make sure your communications tell a coherent story. Include colourful details that make your narrative memorable. Remember that your story isn’t about you, but your audience: the customer.

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