(Part Two) Public speaking is storytelling: Q&A with media trainer Tim Braun

Now that you’ve mastered the art of the virtual panel, someone is bound to ask you to speak at an in-person event. However, the skills you’ve honed in front of the Zoom lens won’t always transfer to storytelling from the stage. Most importantly, you’ll need to wear pants. For more tips (beyond wardrobe requirements), we’re taking it back to media trainer Tim Braun.

For more than twenty years, Braun has given speakers the tools to express themselves with clarity and confidence. As a seasoned journalist with an impressive background in live television production — and all of the split-second decisions that come with it — he knows how to drill down and find the “good parts” of any story.

I caught up with Braun to learn how speakers can turn their speeches into stories, how to be a better audience member (hint: actively listen), and why a temporary parking lot gym provided his best pandemic experience.

Samantha Stallard: Glossophobia, or a fear of public speaking, is believed to affect up to 75% of the population. What guidance do you offer during media training to help alleviate this fear?

Tim Braun: We focus a lot of our sessions on the importance of storytelling and how it brings concepts to life. If you can take your information and embed it in a story, it’s much more likely to stick with your audience.

We do this exercise where I put 46 words on the screen. First I read them aloud, then we read them together, and, without fail, people remember five to eight words afterward. They generally remember the first word and the last, which proves how important your opening and closing are. Later on in the session, I read them a story about me and then ask them to write it down. They can almost write it down verbatim.

So, don’t just tell me what your company’s products or features are. Don’t even tell me about the family that started it or their philanthropy. Instead, figure out a way to tell me a story that brings it to life.

It’s not just about telling stories; it’s about the details in those stories. That’s what makes a story stick, and people often forget to include them. One of my favorite parts of my job is trying to elicit those stories from clients, teasing out the details and pulling them out. It’s fascinating to me.

SS: What about speakers who don’t know what their most compelling stories are?

TB: Putting on my producer hat, I help my speakers pull out ten stories. Then we choose three that they need to always tell. These are the ones that are really important. The reason you created your company. Sometimes stories they’ve never told before are the ones that absolutely illuminate why they do what they do. It’s fun. It’s interesting.

I’ll give you just one illustration. I worked with a woman who was the head designer for an upscale plus-size fashion line. She came into the session, and I saw this tall, willowy strawberry blonde. Of course, the first thing I think is, “What do you know about plus-size fashion?” But over the course of the session, she tells me that she’s struggled with her weight for years; she’s been a size two or four, and she’s been a 14.

At one point when she was at the upper end of that spectrum, she went into the INTERMIX boutique on Fifth Avenue, and the sales manager told her, “Miss, we don’t have a thing here in your size.” I said, “Well, there it is. That’s why you do what you do. You wanted no other woman to ever have that experience.” So now she tells puts on her storytelling hat when she’s interviewed.

SS: How can we be better IRL audience members, too?

TB: Communication is not a one-way street. We talk a lot about what you’re saying and how you should say it. But it’s also about listening — listening well and being an active listener. We’re hardwired to seek reactions. In fact, in the Still Face Experiment, researchers asked a young mother to not react to her baby for two and a half minutes.

First, you see the mother react and engage, but then she becomes stone-faced, and the baby goes haywire. Finally, the mother smiles and holds the baby again. It’s very hard to watch, especially if you’re a parent, but it really stuck with me in my training.

I started using the phrase resting Zoom face. How often do we get on Zoom and say something we thought was super funny, but get no reaction from the others on the call? Crickets. Without a back-and-forth interaction, the virtual world is really difficult to navigate.

SS: What was the last truly great experience you had? This can be before the pandemic or after, but what was it and why was it so special?

TB: We have a local boutique gym in our town, and the owner did everything she could to help us keep minds and bodies together during the pandemic. Obviously, we couldn’t go into the gym, so she got the biggest bar mitzvah tent you’ve ever seen and put it in the parking lot. We were out there together in the rain, and in the snow with hats and gloves. One day the wind was so harsh it blew down all of the stationary bikes.

For some of us, going to that parking lot gym was the only thing we did that day. I just thought, she’s such an extraordinary person. We have to do something for her. So last summer we surprised her with a party here in our backyard. We were all outdoors, and it felt like a real community again. I spoke about how much she had touched me, and what she had given all of us. I think that’s one of the last great experiences I had.

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