I have just returned from the US where I attended the 42nd annual National Storytelling Festival in the tiny town of Jonesborough, Tennessee. Every year, the festival invites around 20 world-class storytellers, and 15,000 people go to listen to them for three days in October. They set up five circus tents, and the tellers tell stories in one-hour sets from 10am until midnight.

These storytellers are masters at holding an audience. Picture this. There’s just one person with a microphone, standing on a bare stage under a white spotlight, telling a story. There are no PowerPoint slides or multimedia, no special lighting effects, no props.  It’s just the speaker and an audience of thousands of people crammed into a circus tent. Thousands of people who have been sitting on seriously uncomfortable folding chairs (trust me) for hours and hours.

And the audience is riveted.

There is so much any speaker can learn by watching matching storytellers like these.  

For one thing, they speak with the absolute conviction that what they are saying is the most interesting thing in the world, both for them and for us. Like there is nothing else they would rather be doing than telling this story, even if, on reflection, the content doesn’t seem like it would warrant that kind of attention. Regi Carpenter, one of my favourites at this year’s festival, spent 30 minutes talking about how her father used to take her on Sunday afternoon excursions to the tip. The summary doesn’t sound that exciting, but in her hands it was amazing.

What a contrast to most presentations I’ve seen, where the speaker acts like they are just trying to get through it as painlessly as possible for everyone concerned.

The next time you speak, make sure you are truly interested in what you have to say. If you think your material is dull, find something you love about it. If you’re excited about what you’re saying, we will be too.

Another way these storytellers hold attention is through pacing and vocal variety. Sometimes they speak slowly, sometimes quickly. Sometimes they are quiet. Sometimes they are loud. And sometimes…. they pause.

How different is this from a speaker who speaks continuously at the same volume and pace for their entire presentation?

Pauses are such wonderful things in a speech and such easy things to insert. They are like the rests between the notes in a piece of music.  When you pause, your audience will automatically focus their attention on you, waiting to hear what you say next.

Speaking skills programs like Toastmasters will encourage you to train yourself to pause instead of saying distracting non-words like “um,” and this is a very useful technique. But pauses are so much more than “um” avoidance. They are one of the most powerful tools at a speaker’s disposal.

Try this. Before you begin your talk, pause and breathe for 2-3 seconds while your audience focuses their attention on you. Identify one or two of the most important things you have to say in your talk, and consciously insert a pause before you say it and a pause after. Hold the pause just a little longer than is comfortable. Then pause again at the end of your talk for 2-3 seconds. This lets the audience process what you have said.

So remember to ramp up your conviction and vary your pacing to hold listeners' attention. And if you want to see some master storytellers in action, search YouTube for Regi Carpenter, Daniel Morden, Carmen Deedy, Tim Lowry, Kevin Kling, or Donald Davis, a few of the featured storytellers at this year's festival.