Captivate Your Audience: Storytelling at Its Best

When you write—whether it’s a keynote speech, an article, or a book for publication—your material has to be relatable for your audience. You’ve got to draw them in and keep their attention. Nothing does this quite as well as using the story as your format. A number of religious texts are written this way for one compelling reason: it works.

I grew up listening to audios from motivational speakers like Zig Ziglar, Jim Rohn and Napoleon Hill. I acquired the motivational audio habit from my boss as a young salesperson, and you could say it just stuck with me. Now I own a publishing company, and Zig remains our most popular talent.

I still listen to Zig from time to time as my car winds its way up a mountainside on a summer day, or on freeway crawls across the metro area to meet with some of the authors I publish.

The legendary Zig Ziglar is a personal favorite of mine because of his expertise in storytelling. I had the good fortune to work with him directly while he was alive, and his folksy manner was authentic. He was a likable guy, as well as a genuinely gifted speaker.

One of Ziglar’s programs recorded years ago, tells the story of the Cookie Thief. It goes like this.

A traveler, waiting to board a plane, sits down next to his pile of luggage to enjoy the bag of cookies he just purchased. A lady next to him dips into the bag, believing that she owns the bag of cookies, and eyes the man like he is a cookie thief. They each indulge in cookies eyeing each other, one stolen morsel at a time. Once the man boards the plane, he realizes that she was right—he finds his untouched bag of cookies underneath his carry-on. It’s too late to tell her he’s sorry or to make amends, and the plane takes-off without his ego. The man is utterly humbled.

Ziglar tells this story in a way that’s charming and engaging—pure classic Zig—and he draws a conclusion from the story that’s undeniable: humility is always the wisest option. The story works because it’s personal, and as listeners, we feel like we’re there with Zig, reliving the moment.

This is why I was dumbfounded when I reviewed another classic self-growth program and heard exactly the same Cookie Thief story told by Wayne Dyer. This was not some unknown hack, but a multi-million-dollar keynote speaker and best-selling author known around the world, using exactly the same parable.

In his talk, Dyer read a poem called the Cookie Thief, credited to Valerie Cox. He drew a similar conclusion to Ziglar’s, but Dyer worded it in a different way. Like Ziglar, he was personally engaged as he told the story, and I felt like he knew the author of the Cookie Thief. I felt like I was there.

Real Comfort Food or Mere Snacks for the Mind?

The poem by Cox that Dyer read is included in the book A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. I’ve worked with both of these authors, and my hat goes off to them for the publishing model they’ve honed to a fine point.

The Chicken Soup series is one of the most successful franchises in publishing history. At more than 130 million copies sold, it’s right up there with Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, Star Wars and Fifty Shades of Grey. We should all be so lucky.

I bring up the series’ popularity because it lends weight to the fact that the Cookie Thief story has been used as exhaustively as a Tollhouse recipe. The 3rd Serving was published only as recently as 2012, about 20 years after Zig’s recording.

This means the Cookie Thief story certainly has made the rounds since Zig’s talk. It’s a good story, to be sure, but is it THAT good? Frankly, it all depends on the storyteller. Having the right ingredients is only the start. What you do with them is just as important.

3 Questions for Storytelling Success:

When you want to use stories to peak the interest of your audience, ask yourself these 3 questions:

  • Whose interest are you peaking? Consider your audience when you’re choosing your material.
  • Do you have a message they can relate to? Make sure your material speaks to a common pain or pleasure that your audience can feel with you.
  • Are you saying it in a way that is relatable? Express your point in a way that is unique and personal to you. Make it your own, and share it with the world.

When you want to make a point, be sure to tell a story. But when you tell a story, make sure the story you’re telling is your own. Make it personal, make it unique, and put your own stamp of individuality on it.

You just never know where your words will end up or whose life will be changed because of them.

Good writing!

Bryan Edired 1Bryan Heathman is the President of Made for Success. He works with bestselling authors and consultants which have included the late Zig Ziglar, Donald Trump and John C. Maxwell in the role of publisher and marketer. Bryan is the author of Conversion Marketing, a marketing book on converting website visitors into paying customers. Bryan’s Fortune 500 experience includes working for Microsoft, Eastman Kodak and Xerox.