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Storytelling Can Turn a Ho Hum Talk Into a Wow Talk

Harriet Hodgson

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I am a health writer and cite studies and statistics to back-up points. When I speak at conferences I am very careful about the research I cite. Listeners tend to forget research, but they remember stories. One talk about anticipatory grief, based on a book I co-authored, contained many stories from my life. The story about my mother's driving was the hit of the “show. "

My mother tried to get her driver's license when I was in high school. She gave up on this dream after she drove the car into the front porch of our house. Her dream was finally realized after she became a widow, moved to Florida, and passed her driving test at age 78. Mom was proud to be a licensed driver.

License or not, I worried about he. In recent phone conversations Mom was so forgetful I decided to visit her and observe her cognition. It turned out that Mom was far more forgetful than I thought. Her condo was a wreck, her closet was filled with new clothes that didn't fit, she kept losing her house keys, and was addicted to the lottery. These were bad enough and then I found out about her driving.

We were going to the grocery store. Mom got into the car, fastened her seat belt, adjusted the mirror, and looked behind her before she backed out. She drove out of the lot slowly and cautiously. I wondered if I had misjudged her forgetfulness. As soon as we reached the main road Mom floored it and sped down the road at an alarming rate of speed.

I opened the window and heard a “woosh" every time we passed a palm tree. At this rate Mom would miss the grocery store. Mom surprised me. She made a wide turn into the lot, sped past parked cars (missing them by an inch), saw an empty space, jammed on the brakes, and parked diagonally across two white lines.

"See, I can drive!" she exclaimed. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Listeners laughed while I was telling the story. They really laughed at the punch line. Telling this story did several things. First, it lightened the mood. Second, it made my mother real. Third, it created a visual picture for the audience. Fourth, it illustrated the danger of a demented person behind the wheel. Fifth, it illustrated the challenge I faced - getting Mom to move to my home town so I could care for her.

I speak from a detailed outline. The main points of my talk are numbered and sub-points are bulleted. There are reminders next to key points, such as “Tell story about Mom's driving. "

Storytelling isn't enough to turn a boring talk into an lively one. You have to build on the story. I followed up the driving story with comments about my fear in the car, how my mother put others at risk, and the challenge of long-distance care giving. I also described the anticipatory grief I felt when I realized the extent of Mom's dementia.

Though we live in a high-tech age people still like a good story. If you are preparing a talk now I hope you will think of stories to go with it. Practice your stories aloud. Monitor your pitch, emphasize key words, insert pauses, and use gestures. Storytelling will help listeners remember the points of your talk. They will also remember you.

Copyright 2008 by Harriet Hodgson

Harriet Hodgson has been an independent journalist for 30 years. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Her 24th book, “Smiling Through Your Tears: Anticipating Grief, " written with Lois Krahn, MD, is available from

Centering Corporation in Omaha, NE, North America's oldest and largest grief resource center, is publishing her 26th book, “Writing to Recover: The Journey from Loss & Grief to a New Life. " The book is slated for early fall release.

Please visit Harriet's Web site and learn more about this busy author and grandmother.


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