By Drew Coons
My wife, Kit, and I attended a seminar led by three people. Two were impressive speakers. One woman wasn’t. She did nearly everything speakers are taught to avoid. She rambled, lost her place in her own notes, looked at the ceiling, and even talked to herself while speaking. But this lady touched the audience’s hearts. How? She told story after story. I can’t remember a single thing either of the other two speakers said. I still remember this woman’s stories.
Stories take many different forms. Books, movies, plays, songs, and TV shows all tell stories. Even most commercials try to tell a tiny story. Why? Stories grab attention, entertain, and are memorable. They can take us to a different time and place. Stories frequently convey meaning more effectively than any detailed explanation.
Jesus told story after story, which we call parables. Who can forget Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan? This powerful, clear lesson speaks to us from a vastly different culture and across the centuries. Maybe you are a teacher, parent, writer, counselor, or speaker. Stories can communicate spiritual truth to hearts by clarifying and bringing life to your message.
Kit and I were asked to talk candidly about sex and relationships to young adults in a church in Fiji. As we waited for our audience to arrive, a huge toad came through the open door and hopped down the center aisle. When a second toad joined the first, eating bugs under the lights, I decided to chase them out. Village children shrieked with laughter as I chased the toads. Finally, with the toads out, we started.
During preliminary singing, more toads poured into the church. By the time we stood to speak, tongue-snapping toads were all around our feet. Fortunately, the Fijians loved our stories and took the message to heart. But afterward I fussed to God, “Lord, speaking well to a different culture and age group is hard enough without having to avoid stepping on toads!” Then God admonished me that my purpose was not looking good while speaking but communicating biblical truth. Our stories had accomplished that.
Creating or Finding Stories
Fictional stories successfully convey ideas. But personal stories, especially mistakes made and lessons learned, add powerful real-life examples. Revealing fallibility establishes a trust relationship with the recipients. Even teenagers, who might roll their eyes at an elder’s story, pay better attention when hearing about a personal mistake.
“I don’t want to talk about myself,” some insist. They’re in good company. Neither did the apostle Paul. “I am speaking as a fool,” he wrote as the Holy Spirit led him to reveal his experiences (2 Corinthians 11:21). Later in Acts 26, when Paul gave a message to powerful men, he chose not to expound from his great knowledge. Rather, Paul told his personal story, including past mistakes. Paul communicated in a humble, engaging manner, which almost persuaded King Agrippa.
Here’s a true story I tell during marriage seminars: “I hate mowing grass. For me, when you can’t see the lawn furniture, that’s time to cut the grass. As newlyweds, Kit and I purchased a house with an acre of grass. Immediately I started converting the yard into woods. Trees and bushes would come right to the house. Then Kit pleaded, ‘Every nice home needs grass.’ My answer, ‘You want grass? Then you’ll cut it!’ For years, Kit did our grass cutting. On hot afternoons, I would be watching a ball game on TV while my young wife mowed grass. Yes, I did that. Then I learned more about being a biblical servant-leader. Changes needed to be made! So I bought her a lawnmower with a bagger. Well, that was a step in the right direction. But to be a godly husband, eventually I started cutting the grass.”
This story contrasts selfishness and service. Husbands recall their own selfish acts. Many think, If he did something that stupid and improved, I can change too. After telling this story, I use Scriptures challenging the husbands to demonstrate love and commitment by doing undesirable jobs.
Personal stories allow unique humor to lighten a serious topic. What funny stories do you tell at social occasions that could convey a lesson learned? If you can’t remember, ask your friends who have heard your stories many times. Absurd exaggeration amuses most audiences; for example, “when you can’t see the lawn furniture” in my grass story. And try to catch the audience by surprise. The line “I bought her a lawnmower with a bagger,” gets laughs because it is unexpected.
Interesting stories to illustrate spiritual principles can also be found in newspapers, magazines, or books. For example, history books have stories of both courage and folly. Always be careful to report accurately and acknowledge your source. The Bible is the most wonderful source of powerful stories, which can be retold or cited like I did Paul’s. However, even Bible stories are most effective when presented well.
Presenting a Story Well
Effective stories like Jesus’ Good Samaritan or Paul’s testimony generally have an introduction, crisis, and resolution to make a point. The crisis creates suspense and may evoke emotions. A resolution should bring closure to recipients.
We observed one couple tell about a horrific traffic accident and then continue their presentation. But the group mentally stayed right there at the accident scene wondering, “What happened next?” Frequently we hear speakers tell stories that are meaningful to them or that they enjoy telling, but without a lesson for the recipients. Stories that illustrate a principle (especially a spiritual principle) can change lives.
Everybody has suffered through long and boring stories. Rarely should a spoken story be longer than 500 words—about three minutes—or you risk losing the listeners’ attention. Jesus’ Good Samaritan story is 179 words. His longest parable, “The Prodigal Son,” actually contains two stories totaling 487 words. The first story reveals the father’s love and forgiveness for the younger son. The second story illustrates wisdom dealing with the older son. Written stories or books will be much longer than 500 words, of course. But you will notice that, however engaging, written stories are frequently a series of actions averaging about 500 words.
The most effective verbal stories are prepared in advance and rehearsed. To communicate concisely and clearly, eliminate details not needed or relevant to the point. President Woodrow Wilson, known for succinct and effective communication, was asked how long he spent preparing a speech. “It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”
Listeners, especially young adults, respond best to verbal stories if you act out the story with exaggerated voices, expressions, and gestures. You may feel foolish. But our purpose is communicating, not feeling good about ourselves.
The Power of Stories
Stories are even the key to flexibility for teachers. As missionaries, Kit and I were sometimes asked to teach on any topic without preparation time. Then we could be seen with our heads together on the front row. The audience probably thought we were praying. But we would be putting together an outline to fit the situation. When you have an inventory of meaningful stories, this isn’t difficult. And the same story can make different points, depending on the need. When we are training missionary speakers, our toad story illustrates persevering through distractions.
Written stories may carry your message to far places. Recently, at a conference in Turkey, we met a Russian couple doing marriage ministry in Siberia. We set a time to get acquainted. To our surprise, six Russian couples previously unknown to us attended. As I started to introduce us, one of the Russians interrupted, “We all know who you are. We read your book.” By “book” he meant a how-to ministry manual we wrote in the late 1990s. Those otherwise dry instructions had been enlivened with many stories, including ministry failures and successes. The stories had carried this manual into translation and to a different culture on the far side of the earth. Russians are now using our ideas effectively there.
The power of stories is why Jesus used so many. Stories can enable us to communicate God’s truth in a clear, relevant manner. They inspire hope and change lives by speaking to the heart. “Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story” (Psalm 107:2).
Drew Coons has trained hundreds of missionaries to communicate effectively.