Last month, I gave a keynote speech in Chicago for a Fortune 500 Company. The theme of the conference was engagement. Over 200 human resource professionals from all over the world gathered to learn how to increase the level of engagement among their 80,000 employees in 23 countries. Their ...Last month, I gave a keynote speech in Chicago for a Fortune 500 Company. The theme of the conference was engagement. Over 200 human resource professionals from all over the world gathered to learn how to increase the level of engagement among their 80,000 employees in 23 countries. Their challenge was to get everyone in the company – from the guys who work on the trucks to the secretaries, engineers and people in payroll – to feel emotionally, as well as intellectually, engaged in the larger vision of the company. I was there to introduce the idea that storytelling was one of the most effective vehicles for accomplishing their goal of employee engagement.

What does it mean to be engaged? And how and why does story enter into the equation?

Webster’s Dictionary defines engagement this way: “to attract and hold by influence or power.” It goes on to include: “to engross; to induce to participate; to bring together and interlock, as in interlocking gears.”

As speakers, trainers and leaders, it’s essential to engage your audience or employees. If they’re not engaged, they check out. If they check out, they don’t learn anything. They listen but they don’t hear. Going back to one of Webster’s definitions – to bring together and interlock – we must find ways to connect with our audiences so that they feel engaged and interlocked with us. Not just with our content, but with us!

Imagine yourself and your content as one set of gears and your audience’s heart, mind and soul as another set of gears. When you speak, are the two sets of gears engaged together?

You have to be engaged, yourself, before you can engage your audience. Can you recall a time where you were completely engrossed in a task? Did everything around you, all distractions, fade away? Were you completely focused? Did the time pass quickly? When you’re engaged, your entire being, heart, mind and soul are brought together and interlocked, like perfectly fitting gears. You are mentally, emotionally and physically participating. No part of you is left out. Just imagine what it would be like to be that engaged in front of an audience. When you are engaged, then you can engage your audience.

Boring speakers are not engaging because they are not totally engaged, themselves. They are talking heads, or worse, people who read off of PowerPoint slides. They’re boring because they’ve disengaged their own gears. In my coaching work with executives and people who want to be more dynamic when they speak, the most common disengagement is in the area of emotion and physicality. It’s not that they don’t feel emotion or know how to use their bodies appropriately. They often do. In fact, many of them are athletes or former athletes. They become boring because they stop being all of who they are, leaving only one gear moving – a talking head.

I believe that total engagement in a speaking context is sensory, thus the concept of sensational engagement. It’s sensory for the speaker; therefore it’s sensory for the listener. When an audience member is engaged, all of their senses are stimulated; head and heart are working together; auditory, visual and kinesthetic senses are simultaneously stimulated and interlocked. Their mental gears are challenged by new ideas and concepts while at the same time their emotional gears are stimulated by the passion, energy and commitment of the speaker.

I also spoke last month at the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) International Conference in Dallas. A couple of hours before our presentation, I went downstairs to check out the room I was to be speaking in. I poked my head in the door while another speaker was giving his presentation. The room was set for 280 people, but I noticed that there were only about 50 people in the room. They were spread out all over the place, some of them sitting far from the speaker. A number of them were passing the time checking email and sending text messages.

What amazed me about this was that the speaker didn’t seem to notice. He was lost in his own world, talking away, oblivious to the fact that only a few people were engaged and the rest had checked out. They weren’t engaged because he wasn’t engaging. Either he didn’t care or he did care and didn’t now what to do about it. Do you think telling a good story might have helped?

An hour before my presentation, I went back to the same room to set up. Within ten minutes, people started to arrive for my Story Theater session. I told them it would not be starting for another 50 minutes and they said they knew that and wanted to make sure they got there in time to get a seat. By the time we began our presentation, it was standing-room only. The word had spread. People knew that I was going to get them involved, give them a show and engage them with stories and Story Theater Method techniques.

Within 60 seconds of beginning our presentation, I got them up on their feet participating in a physical exercise called The Wave. (Story Theater Newsletter Volume 5 Number 4, May 2004) For 90 minutes we utilized the power of sensational engagement to keep them involved, not just with my Story Theater content, but with their application of it. They were actively thinking, visioning, writing, interacting, laughing and crying. They were engaged because we were engaged.

When I was growing up, James Brown was know as the hardest working man in show business. His shows were a workout. He sang and danced and worked up so much sweat that it was pouring off of him. There was so much physical energy and passion coming off of the stage that his audience members just had to dance at their seats and in the aisles.

James Brown has his songs. You and I have our stories. When telling them, it’s not a bad idea to work up a little sweat, metaphorically speaking. Use the Story Theater Method that you can learn about in my articles and newsletters and in my book and on my audios, and make your stories into mini-plays. Don’t just tell the story; bring it to life by re-enacting it.

If you are a speaker or trainer, use your personal stories to stimulate sensational engagement. Your listener will not only watch you as you tell your story, they’ll see their own parallel story on the movie screen in their mind. Stories give you permission to use vocal and physical variety, as well. Your story will tell you where you should change rhythms and tempos to emphasize emotional states, and change volume and pitch to exaggerate or create tenderness or impact. Your stories give you permission to engage all of your senses and express all kinds of physical activities and movements.

Have fun. The more you get into it, the more they’ll get into it. Engage your senses and you’ll engage theirs.

If you’re a leader and want to engage your employees with stories, here are some of the tips I shared with my audience in Chicago:
> Keep an eye out for people doing small but meaningful things that exemplify your company’s spirit and then tell their story at a meeting.
> Listen for the stories that people are telling in the lunchroom about how they solved a customer’s problem and have them tell that story in a meeting.
> Find stories from every level within the organization – be a story anthropologist.
> Interview longtime employees and audio record their stories. You’ll discover your heritage and capture your history.
> Know that people are seeking acknowledgement. By telling their story – or having it told – they feel acknowledged and valued.
> Find stories that illustrate individual integrity and commitment.
> Find stories that show initiative or innovation.
> Find stories that illustrate courage or perseverance.
> Tell stories at meetings and encourage others to share stories as well. You’ll be amazed how stories engage people and allow them to participate.

People are hungry for engagement. They go to the movies because they want to feel. They watch American Idol because they want to be a part of something. It’s not just a show for them; they actively participate in it. They root for their favorite singers and mourn when they get kicked off the show. It’s a success because it’s a human drama unfolding before their eyes. It’s a story.

Craft and deliver your stories, using The Story Theater Method, and create some sensational engagement in your next presentation!

Author's Bio: 

Doug Stevenson, president of Story Theater International, is a storytelling in business expert. He is the creator of The Story Theater Method and the author of the book, Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method.

His keynote, training and executive coaching clients include Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Lockheed Martin, Oracle, Bristol Myers Squibb, Wells Fargo, Amgen, Volkswagen, Century 21, The Department of Defense, The National Education Association and many more.

His 10 CD - How to Write and Deliver a Dynamite Speech audio learning system is a workshop in a box. It contains an 80-page follow along workbook. Learn more at:

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Doug can be reached at 1-800-573-6196 or 1-719-573-6195. Learn more about the Story Theater Method, purchase the book, eBook or Story Theater audio six pack, and sign-up for the free Story Theater newsletter at: