12 Things I Learned at Story Time

Post written by Chris Spagnuolo. Follow Chris on Twitter 10 comments

I was working from home yesterday and my 3-year old convinced me to go with him to Story Time at our local library. He’s so cute, I couldn’t resist. I hadn’t been to Story Time in years. In fact, the last time I was at Story Time was back in the early 90′s when I was a regular guest reader at the New York City Public Library. I went to Story Time thinking this’ll be a great half-hour with my little guy. I never thought I’d walk away thinking that I learned some valuable lessons myself. Ah, the expert mind…it always convinces us that we can’t learn from “simple” experiences. But after it was over, and I reflected a bit on Story Time, I realized that there were valuable lessons to take away from it that we can all use in our presentations. Believe it or not, librarians and others who read to children at Story Time may be some of the best presenters in the world, and we’ll never see them on TED or hear much about them (plus they have some of the toughest audiences in the world). If you really want to get your presentation game on, maybe you should start reading books to the itty-bitties at your local library. In any case, here’s what I learned from my trip to the library with my 3-year old:

1. Know your audience

Before you ever even head into your presentation, know who your audience is. In this case, it was 2- and 3-year olds. Understand why they’re there, what they’re hoping to get out of their time with you. And understand who they are. Don’t deliver the same canned presentation to every audience. Work at it, put some energy into it and craft your message and your presentation to your audience.

2. Say hello

You don’t have to sing the hello song to get everyone on the same page, but say something to get your audience into listening mode right off the bat. It doesn’t have to be a formal introduction of who you are; they probably already know that, otherwise they wouldn’t be sitting in the audience. But say or do something interesting to get everyone ready to listen to you.

3. Have a good story to tell

Presentations are about telling stories. We loved stories as kids and we still do as adults. Stories make an impact, they’re memorable. Maybe your entire presentation is one big story or maybe it’s made up of lots of little ones. Either way, it doesn’t matter, but just be sure to tell stories. They sink in much better than facts and figures. Imagine if Goldie Locks were told the same way we present our talks. There would be detailed descriptions and charts about the size, weight, age, and gender of each bear, their general disposition, the specific types of foods and beds that they liked, etc. Boring! Just tell the story already.

4. Use pictures

Your favorite stories when you were a kid had pictures. Imagine a Dr. Seuss book without pictures. Not quite as much fun right? And what exactly would a Crunk-Car, or a Lorax, or a Zumble-Zay mean to you without the pictures to connect the words to your emotions. News flash: We don’t change when we grow up. Vision is our most dominant sense and when you use great pictures and visuals to help your audience emotionally connect to your words, you win and more importantly, your audience wins.

5. Invite audience participation

Show of hands: How many of you have ever been to a presentation where the presenter rambled on and never engaged his or her audience? Oh, that many of you huh? It’s that easy folks. Want to involve and engage your audience: Ask a simple question.  At Story Time yesterday it was this simple to get the kids engaged: “How many of you know what a koala bear is?” The kids were instantly engaged.  For those who knew what a koala was, the anticipation of a story about a koala grew. And for those who didn’t, it was “Wow, we’re going to learn what a koala bear is!” The same thing applies to your audience even if they are all old, balding men. Engage them, get them interested in where you’re taking them.

6. Get your audience moving around

We don’t have to all get up and do the kangaroo dance, but get your audience doing something. Clapping, raising their hands, standing up…anything to keep the blood flowing. And if you’re doing anything for more than an hour, give them breaks to move around. If you’re teaching or doing a workshop, make your exercises include lots of movement. Keep the blood flowing.

7. Have a consistent theme

At Story Time yesterday, the theme was “Pockets”. We read lots of stories about things with pockets. Upon signing in, the kids got nametags shaped like pockets. The songs we sang were about…you guessed it, pockets. The reader was wearing an apron with pockets and so was Moe, her little monkey puppet. While you may not go to these extremes in your presentation, you should have a consistent theme. And by that I mean, have a key point that you’re trying to make. And, make sure that the visual theme of your slides or other visual aids is consistent and compliments your narrative theme.

8. Use your voice(s)

Oh the drone of that monotone speaker! How long can you listen to that for? Listen to a great storyteller and see how they use many voices to tell their story. I’m not implying that you need to be Rich Little or know how to do 100 impersonations. I’m talking about your own voices. Don’t use the same tone and volume throughout your talk. Whisper, shout, talk faster, talk slower. Use your own voices to emphasize points or to grab the attention of your audience. Without even trying, I bet you have at least 8 voices that you can use in your next presentation.

9. Use drama and suspense to create tension

The reader yesterday had a little monkey puppet sidekick with her named Moey. He was wearing an apron with a pocket in front. Here’s how the reader created tension and suspense with the monkey: “Do you know what Moey the monkey likes to keep in his pocket?” You could the see the tension and anticipation build immediately. The kids were all like “What, what, please tell us!” Now for the slow reveal to really create drama and suspense: “He keeps a gemstone…(she slowly takes the gemstone out)…he keeps a cookie…(oh boy, here comes the cookie)…and he keepsa Golden Key! (using the whispering by the way)” Now the kids are like: “Wow, a Golden Key…I wonder what that’s for!” In your presentations and talks, don’t be in such a rush to pull out the Golden Key. Build some suspense, some tension. It keeps your audience focused on you and what you’re going to say next.

10. Have a memorable moment

Oh, so about that Golden Key: it opened a treasure box where Moey kept all of his favorite toys (see, wait to pull out the Golden Key…it works well in writing too). My little guy is still talking about the treasure box today. It was the single most memorable moment of Story Time yesterday. He didn’t forget it. When you do your presentations, does your audience walk away remembering that treasure box moment or do they walk away with far too much information crammed into their heads to ever remember anything. Make sure you have that magic moment in your presentation that everyone walks away with.

11. Keep it short

Story Time was a mere 20 minutes yesterday. Guess what? That’s about how long the best presentations I’ve ever seen have been too. Take a look at all of the great talks on the TED site. Guess what? They’re all less than 20 minutes! It doesn’t matter if you’re 3-years old or 30-years old, as a species, we tend to have a very short attention span. Depending on the source, the average adult attention span is somewhere between 7 and 9 minutes. John Medina of Brain Rules fame calls it the 10 Minute Rule . According to John, “What happens at the 10-minute mark to cause such trouble? Nobody knows.” We may not know what happens, but it happens. Keep it short, and keep it interesting.

12. Wave goodbye

So maybe you don’t sing a goodbye song, give Moey the Monkey a hug, or wave goodbye to your friends, but you should have a concrete, definite ending to your presentation. It’s part of the natural arc of a story: beginning, middle, and end. Don’t end by saying “So, um, that’s it” or “Well, that’s all the time we have“. End on a strong note that lets the audience know it’s over. And end early if you can. It’s the old performer’s saying: Leave them wanting more. At the end of Story Time my little guy said to me “I can’t wait until the next Story Time.” That’s how you want to end. Make sure your audience leaves saying, “I can’t wait to see that guy present again!”

Share on Facebook
Post to Google Buzz
Bookmark this on Yahoo Bookmark
Share on FriendFeed
Bookmark this on Digg
Share on reddit
Share on LinkedIn
Share on StumbleUpon
Bookmark this on Delicious

  1. Lisa Braithwaite said,

    Great post, Chris! A great example of how inspiration can strike at any time — even Story Time!

  2. Chris said,

    Definitely Lisa.  If you always have a beginner’s mind, you can find lessons and inspiration everywhere!

  3. Ryan Prociuk said,

    Chris great post. Making complex = simple is a concept that many of us need to learn and live by.

    Story time should be the theme of presentation classes

  4. Cody said,

    Chris – thanks for the great post, really enjoyed the perspective. Something struck me as I read, and it’s in several of the points above but I’d like to call it out for what it’s worth. In my opinion, the best stories are not read – they are told. Continuing with the early childhood theme, Waldorf educators don’t read stories, instead they learn them and then tell them while looking at and engaging with the children. The stories are consistent, but not homogeneous, and there is room for improvisation and interaction with the audience. Simple props are used to help illustrate the story as well. I believe that presenters and public speakers can learn a lot from this approach. Thanks again for the valuable post! – Cody

  5. Vinod said,

    Child is the father of man

  6. How to Give a High Quality Presentation « Quality and Innovation said,

    [...] I ran into a blog post by Chris Spagnuolo this morning (Twitter: @ChrisSpagnuolo) called “12 Things I learned from Story Time”. Apparently he went to the library recently with his 3 year old, and while listening to the story [...]

  7. Debby Bruck said,

    Loved this! Makes it quite simple, doesn’t it? Seeing the world through the eyes of a child helps us get in touch with ourselves, our own needs, desires and wants.

    As a grandma, you know how to keep a child interested and when to distract them from their boo-boos, when to show them a nice color fruit, and how to dress up vegetables. Tell the kids stories of how it was when you were little and their eyes light up.  [Maybe not teenagers, that's another story.]

    Also, thanks for the WISYWIG here on the comments.

    Debby , CHOM at

  8. Kristina Thorpe said,

    I love this blog post.  Clear and concise.  Tells a great story!

  9. Rhett Laubach said,

    Great post! Just found you today and am already digging it. Keep up the good work.

    Rhett Laubach

  10. Clay Franklin said,

    Great article.
    I followed over from Lisa Braithwaite’s site
    I just built a Keynote slide and used bullet points and no images.
    I will need to rethink the story I will be telling and see if it is engaging and leaving the audience wanting more.
    I will remember to make the presentation in such a way that children would be engaged.  That should keep it from being boring.
    Clay Franklin

Add A Comment


Creative Commons License
©2011 Please don't copy me, it's bad karma.
Edgehopper by Chris Spagnuolo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.