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Keynote Survival Skills: Tips and Techniques from a Story Teller

Tips and Techniques

“Chad Pregracke had grown up on the river, spending hot summers in the sun wading in the shallows, exploring the wildlife, fishing for dinner, and diving for clams to pay his way through college. He loved the river and the river needed help. The mighty Mississippi had become the dumping ground for thousands and someone had to start the process of cleaning up the garbage. He asked himself, “What can one man do?” Then he went to work.”

So started the introduction to my keynote speech to 450 people—one of the most intimidating learning events of my life! But, I survived and maybe even enjoyed the journey more than I expected. Here’s how that happened.

After facilitating a successful Masters Give Back offering of The Leadership Challenge® Workshop in Kilgore, TX, I was asked to attend the annual Regional Education on Aging, Caregiving and Healthcare (REACH) conference sponsored by the East Texas Area Agency on Aging. Specifically, they invited me to provide an overview of The Leadership Challenge® as a keynote speaker over lunch in Longview, TX—just down the road, 30 miles from Kilgore.

As a professional trainer, I love facilitation but was somewhat intimidated by the idea of delivering a keynote in front of 450 people. I would have to garner attention to the message while competing not only with a lunch buffet but also with everyone’s desire to visit with their old friends.

My mentors, Renee Harness and Tom Pearce, have long recommended simply telling stories as a way to introduce The Leadership Challenge. No need for 500 PowerPoint slides. Their advice, “Have two slides per Practice, one with the commitments and one with a picture that reflects the story being told.” That sounded like sage advice to me.

As I began my remarks, I advised everyone in the audience of our collective predicament. “I have some good news and some bad news,” I said. “The bad news is I am not a keynote speaker. The good news is I am not giving a keynote speech.” After a little laughter I opened with my first story.

Within minutes every eye was on me. I began by telling the tale of a young man from Ethiopia, Tariku Savage (son of our colleague and Certified Master Amy Savage), who had built six water wells close to the rural village of Kembatu where his brother had died from dysentery. I shared the story of Chad Pregracke and his mission to clean the Mississippi. I explained how Walt Disney had built a kingdom on a simple vision: “When you think of family entertainment, think of Walt Disney.” I also explained how our visions can change over time, just like Walt Disney’s did—from illustrator to family movies to theme parks.

Together we explored the accomplishment of Don Schoendorfer, founder of Free Wheelchair Mission, as I shared how he had built an organization that has distributed over one million free wheelchairs around the world to people in need. And the audience was with me the entire time—laughing, sighing, and applauding as I shared these stories and described how each of these people, in various ways, clearly exemplified The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. Telling stories of encouragement about the good work of others is one of the 30 behaviors associated with exemplary leadership. And every leader can benefit from improving this skill.

Telling a good story is a form of artwork and like any other skill requires practice and compliance with best practices. Here are a few ideas to help you get started:
  1. Utilize brain chemistry as you plan your keynote 
    In his TED Talk, The Magical Science of Storytelling, David JP Phillips explores how you can release chemicals in the brain that are similar to those released when a person falls in love. These hormones and neurotransmitters create feelings of connectedness, interest, focus, and buy-in. Cliffhangers and details increase dopamine levels in the brain. Stories that create empathy (personal stories) release oxytocin while humorous stories release endorphins. 

  2. Use Humorous Stories to Engage Your Audience
    Using humorous stories engage people’s attention quickly. Laughter also releases endorphins which are believed to improve both short- and long-term memory. But remember, the humorous story needs to be directly applicable to the message you are trying to communicate. So, avoid telling a story just for the sake of laughter. But, if you have a choice between a funny story that makes the point and a straight-forward story that makes the point, choose humor unless there is a reason not to do so. 

  3. Use personal stories to increase connection and move people to action
    Using stories that engage emotions helps people learn and moves them to action. Change is difficult and obtaining emotional commitment is key in many instances. Do you want someone to commit to a course of action? Tell an emotional story about someone who struggled with the same type of change and the difference it made in the end. We often know what change is needed but don’t take action until we feel like we should. 

  4. Research and have at your fingertips at least twice the information you will share in your story
    While your story may only be 5 minutes long, having additional information to draw on gives you the self-confidence of knowing background and collateral information. This is helpful as you frame the story and allows you to answer questions when people ask for additional information. In this day and age, information is everywhere. 
For example, I like to use Commander Mike Abrashoff and his command of the USS Benfold as one of my stories to illustrate how leaders Enable Others to Act. (A previously authored article that profiled Commander Abrashoff’s leadership, The Five Practices at Sea, and published in this newsletter can be viewed here. To prepare, I read two of his books and listened to numerous YouTube videos of his keynote addresses. This allowed me to adapt his story to other Practices and gave me much more information to draw from. 
  1. Save a little intrigue for your closing
    In preparation for this keynote, my wife and I spent several hours preparing small brown paper bags containing “encouragement” items. This took time, as there were just over 70 tables with six conference attendees at each. I asked participants not to peak and during my remarks I talked about the power of Encouraging the Heart.
At the end of my remarks, I invited participants to open the bag at their table, to choose an item from the bag, and select a person in the room to whom they wanted to present the item as a gift of encouragement. I provided an example and then mayhem ensued. Everyone chose an item and started looking for that special someone they could encourage. Some were sitting next to each other while others traveled across the room. It was exciting to watch them stand and encourage each other enthusiastically for about 10 minutes.

We had laughter, fun, tears, hugs, and encouragement galore. I then asked the crowd, “How did it feel to get encouragement?” “GREAT!” they shouted. “How did it feel to give encouragement?” “GREAT!” they responded again. “Can you encourage a bit more frequently both at home and at work?” “YES!” This intrigue of trying to guess what was in the bag plus the chance to get up and say a big thank you to a colleague was a natural closer. 

Final Thought
Some people have a natural aptitude for delivering keynotes. Frankly, I do not. However, by focusing on what I knew about storytelling I was able to muddle through. Anyone can improve their storytelling skills by understanding how stories affect the brain and then applying the three Ps of presentation: practice, practice, practice.


Michael Curtis,
a Certified Master-in-Training of The Leadership Challenge®, has 30+ years in public service including a stint in the United States Air Force. A member of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services for over 20 years, he currently supervises a team of highly motivated trainers for Adult Protective Services. To obtain a copy of the slide deck Michael used in the keynote he describes in this article, he can be reached at michael.curtis@dfps.state.tx.us.

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