Sticky storytelling: the key to being remembered

If you really want to make your messages memorable, turn your words into images.

If you’re delivering a speech or presentation, it’s probably not the mass of your words that will convince an audience to march to your drum. More likely, it’s the few telling images that your words evoke in the minds of the audience.

An ABC reporter named Robert Krulwich used to talk about Sticky Storytelling. He specialized in reporting scientific topics to a lay audience. No easy task. But Krulwich always found a way. 

Here’s what he said: “Like any storyteller, I want my audience’s complete attention while I am on the screen. But what I really want is a couple of hours after I’ve finished, I want some of them, half would be nice, to remember what I’ve said; not all of it, just the gist, and if not the gist, maybe an image, a thought, something sticky enough to carry my message a couple of beats past my performance.”

So he developed his concept of sticky storytelling: give people something to remember, visually – then attach a thought to it.

If you want to make better speeches or upgrade your presentation skills, take a lesson from Krulwich. Look at your notes, or listen to the phrases you’re playing with in your head, and see what images come to mind. See if you can stick some of your thoughts to a relevant image. The image hangs about in the mind of the listener, and triggers a memory of the words.

I remember overhearing two people talking about the remarkable achievement of Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell in becoming the first people to free-climb the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite national park in California, reputedly the world’s toughest climb.

They made the 3,000ft ascent using only natural rock holds for hands and feet. Rope was used only for safety.

“Some of the smallest and sharpest holds I have ever attempted to hold on to,” Caldwell posted on Facebook. “It’s crazy to think that the skin on our fingertips could be the limiting fact towards success or failure.”

“We were hanging off that mountain by squeezing our fingers into cracks no bigger than the width of a dime.”

As the climbers recounted their struggle, they turned their words into sticky images: “We were hanging off that mountain by squeezing our fingers into cracks no bigger than the width of a dime.”

And that was part of the conversation I overhead between two friends telling each other about the climb. “Can you believe it?” said one person. “They were hanging off that mountain by squeezing their fingers into cracks no bigger than the width of a dime.”

Of all the words written about the climb, it’s the phrase ‘fingers in cracks no bigger than the width of a dime’ that sticks in my mind. And it clearly stuck in other people’s minds, too.

So if you want to improve your presentation skills and public speaking, if you want people to remember your words an hour, or a day or a week later, turn some of your words into strong, bold images. Get sticky. Evoke the image, then attach a thought to it. That’s sticky storytelling.