Where Do You Find Good Stories to Tell? – A Reflection for Speakers and Presenters

Arthur John Gossip

Arthur John Gossip

“Woe to the one who goes to the concordance for his text in a moment of need, for he will not find it there.”
Arthur John Gossip, I think it was from his Warrack Lectures on preaching (quote paraphrased, from my memory banks from decades ago).


(Personal note: this was prompted by a recent assignment I had. I speak, but I also write speeches for others to deliver. I needed the right closing story for a speech I was writing. I think I came up with the perfect story – from 30 years ago…).

When you give a speech or presentation, and you tell a story, here’s a question – where do you get your story? 

This is not a small issue. There are so many ways to get this one wrong, and just a couple of ways to get this one right.

You know the rules – know your audience, choose stories that are relevant to their issues…

And, you must never tell a story as though it was your story – as though it happened to you – if it is someone else’s story…

But, to know the right story to tell, you have to know a lot of stories.
And here’s the big one — you have to read widely to know enough stories.

If you use reference works (books of quotations; books of stories and illustrations) to find your story, then it carries the danger of sounding like you got your story from a book of stories and illustrations.

But, if you read widely, you gather an arsenal of stories, all understood within their larger context.

Yes, I have my favorites. For example, I have told one story for years about William Paley, and his early grasp of the promise of television. He forced his will on the board of CBS, when they were making all of their money through their dominance in radio. He made them follow his lead, and shift their attention to television. He did this at the very moment that there were very few televisions in the entire country. And then… CBS was dominant in television also.

I read that story in The Powers That Be by David Halberstam. Mr. Halberstam placed that story within the bigger context of the great media powers of the 20th Century.

The quote at the top of this post is truly from my memory banks, from my preaching days. Arthur John Gossip was a Scottish preacher, who preached what students of preaching acknowledge as one of the great sermons: But When Life Tumbles In, What Then. His wife had died, unexpectedly, in the midst of “routine” surgery. This sermon was his first after her death. And the Scripture text for his sermon was this:

“If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with the horses? And if in the land of peace, wherein thou trustedst, they wearied thee, then how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?” Jer. xii. 5

You’d have to read the sermon to understand how this was, in fact, the perfect Scripture text for this sermon. And the quote about not finding your text from a concordance (a concordance is a book that simply lists Bible verses by word and topic) reveals the truth. He was saying that you have to know the Bible, and life, and struggle, to pull out the Scripture text you need at the moment you need it. There are no short cuts.

Well, the same is true for a good speaker in any arena. If you don’t “know” a lot of stories, then when you need a story, you will likely not find the exact right story that you need.

For all of us who desire to be effective as speakers, I think our challenge is this – read widely, learn a lot of stories, and remember as many of the good stories as we can…

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