Narrative Storytelling – An Interview with Maria Ross
(Day 23, Speaking Palooza 2019)

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July is Freedom from Fear of Speaking Month and to celebrate, I’ve invited a team of speaking experts to share their best tips and tricks for improving your speaking skills and overcoming speaking anxiety.

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Narrative Storytelling – An Interview with Maria Ross

For Speaker Palooza 2019, Maria Ross took a few moments out of her very busy life and business to answer a few questions about narrative storytelling and how to be a more confident speaker.

Narrative Storytelling - An Interview with Maria Ross

Carma Spence: You’re a brand storyteller, Maria, and you help entrepreneurs and companies–even authors and speakers–craft their brand stories. What are the elements of a good story that people can also apply when they are on stage?

Maria Ross: It’s always important to remember who is the hero of your story or talk. It’s about the audience, not about you. What’s in it for them?

The number one way to draw people in is to clearly understand what your audience wants and needs and build your talk around that. Whatever you present, think about how it benefits the listener. Why are you sharing this anecdote, data, or information? What can they learn from it, do with…how will it help them see something they’ve never seen before?

If you can’t figure that out, you should think twice about putting that in your talk or brand messaging. You can present information they don’t know they need to know–you’re the expert–but then frame why it matters to them to know that. Even if you are talking about your business or yourself, how does that information benefit them?

When you think about the audience first, you ensure your talk or message is not just an ego trip, but that it matters and resonates with your audience. This is true of brand and it’s true of great presentations, even ones that aim to teach something.

It's a myth that no one gets nervous when they go on stage!

CS: As a keynote speaker, and an actress, you’ve spoken or performed in front of both small and large audiences. What do you do to prepare for getting on stage that others can implement? Do you still get nervous?

MR: It’s a myth that no one gets nervous when they go on stage! Every audience is different. What if they are not responsive? What if they don’t engage? What if I trip going to the podium?!

I always prepare by putting the audience first and making it about them, not me, and that helps calm my nerves. I’m there to provide value–and I assume they want to receive that value. This helps you frame it as less of an “audition” and more about an interactive give and take.

I prepare by first thinking about what they want and need, build my slides and play with order and flow–with loose notes. I practice my talk in front of my computer quite a bit (my dog loves hearing me talks) before I ever take the stage. I always try to keep things as a loose outline rather than a script where I could get paralyzed if I forget the right word.

I think mostly it’s about changing your mindset to be excited to share valuable information with others. Don’t let tech glitches or forgetting your place or whatnot be a big issue. If you’re being authentic, it happens and the audience will come with you if you don’t get flustered. Know they are on your side and don’t want you to fail!

I will literally walk out of a presentation if the speaker just puts his entire speech up in bullets on each slide.

CS: What are some mistakes you see presenters making, both in their narrative storytelling, and their actual presentation style and how can they fix that to deliver a more impactful speech?

MR: My slides anchor my flow so I don’t lose my place, but I NEVER just put endless text on each slide. I will literally walk out of a presentation if the speaker just puts his entire speech up in bullets on each slide. That’s the kiss of death and not what people want to watch

Recently, I delivered a brand new talk and I did have notes on stage with me for that because I don’t know the stats and such well enough yet. I scripted it out in bullet points and practiced the heck out of it until phrases just started coming naturally to me. It’s okay to have notes–just don’t “read” your talk. People want you to engage and will put up with you occasionally checking your notes or correcting yourself more than they will if you just read and never look up.

Also, take a grounding breath before you start and slow down! I see so many speakers who get up there and try to race through things because they are nervous. And that just makes the crowd nervous. When you find yourself freaking out or you lose your place, stop and breath. It’s okay to have a moment of silence.

The other big mistake I see is people rambling and not giving clear, distinct points. Plot out your presentation with a clear start, supporting points and summary. You have to remember that people are listening. use your slides to reinforce points, but keep things with a very clear beginning, middle and end, and don’t belabor the point. Engage with the audience to ensure they get it and then move on.

You are not on trial up there! People want you to succeed so they have as enjoyable a time as you.

CS: Any other final words of advice for those who want to get better at public speaking or secure more speaking engagements?

MR: Change your mindset: Reframe your presentation as an interactive exchange of ideas. You are not on trial up there! People want you to succeed so they have as enjoyable a time as you.

Get practice: Find lots of opportunities to present and improve. Even doing some live webinars can be helpful. Volunteer to give talks locally at associations, clubs–these groups are always looking for free speakers–and perhaps join a local Toastmasters club. This will not just give you practice, but build your visibility, enable you to collect testimonials and also allow you to video the talks so have footage to build a speaker reel (which you will need if you want to start getting paid).

Be professional: Remember, your job as a speaker is to appeal to the meeting planners and make their lives easier. They are your marketing target, not necessarily the end audience. Many speakers forget that.

So what do they need to make a decision? They need to see a sample of you speaking (your speaker reel). They need to know what you can talk about (topic descriptions, abstracts) and what the audience will get from those talks. They need proof that other event planners have loved working with you.

For prospecting, list your profile on sites like eSpeakers, where event planners look for talent. Reach out and contact event planners on LinkedIn and apply to conferences and events. It takes a lot of effort, but if you score even 3 well-paid speaking engagements a year, it can be worth it!

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About Maria Ross

Maria Ross is a brand strategist, speaker and author who believes cash flow, creativity, and compassion are not mutually exclusive. She is the founder of Red Slice, a brand consultancy in Northern California. Maria inspires solopreneurs, startups, and small businesses to use their platform or business, regardless of size, to be a force for good. Maria has appeared in numerous media outlets, including MSNBC, ABC News, and Entrepreneur Magazine. She writes for and HUffington Post and speaks on both business and inspirational topics for clients such as BlogHer,The New York Times Small Business Summit, various Chambers of Commerce and women’s business groups. Maria is the author of several books, including Branding Basics for Small Business and Rebooting My Brain and is currently working on her latest to be released in Fall 2019, The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success. A Playbook for Brands, Leaders, and Teams.

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About the author

This post is part of Speaking Palooza. Created by Carma Spence, author of the award-winning, bestselling book Public Speaking Super Powers, it is a month-long event bringing together a wide variety of speaking experts from throughout the English-speaking world to help you overcome the fear of speaking and become a better speaker.

Please see the "About" section above for more information about today's featured expert.