I was just eight years old when my father handed me the little hardcover book of inspirational stories and said, “You get to give a three-minute talk next month at church. This will help.”

For those not familiar with the Mormon ways, every member of the congregation (or “ward”) will, at some point, be strong-armed into giving a talk during a Sunday meeting. And the expectation that you’ll participate usually begins when you reach the ripe old age of eight — the age when most of us get baptized.

I don’t remember the talk I gave, or any of the others my father volunteered me for, but I do remember the feelings. And ‘nervous’ doesn’t begin to explain them.

Let’s just say my entire digestive tract would tie itself in knots the minute I was told about my place on the upcoming agenda.

Luckily, I never got the silly advice to “imagine everyone in their underwear.” (Mormons kind of frown on the practice of picturing your friends and family in their underwear. Go figure.)

Nope. My dad coached me with tips like, “Just practice. It’ll get easier.”

So when I finally stepped up to the podium and looked out over the audience, I was thrilled that I hadn’t eaten breakfast.

And then I’d launch into the telling of whatever story I’d decided to share.

Wonder of wonders. Those talks didn’t kill me.

I got through them. And in time, I noticed a deep sense of satisfaction would wash over me when I was done.

Over the years, I gave many of those kinds of talks. And they got longer with each birthday.

So when it came time to speak in school or give a presentation at work, all that practice had helped me actually enjoy speaking to an audience.

(Thank you, Mormon Church.)

Don’t get me wrong. I still get nervous. But it’s a bit like the thrill you get from riding a roller coaster — my stomach gets a bit fluttery, and there are wild swings of euphoria and fear, but in the end (if I do it even halfway right) I’ve made some real connections with the folks in the room.

You may not have had the “luxury” of practicing the art of public speaking as a child, but you can still learn to enjoy the process.

Today, a little over 40 years later, what I know to be true is that the best talks, presentations, and lessons I’ve delivered have all been those where I shared a story or two.

And not just any story, but a TRUE story — either from my own life, or someone I know.

Five-of-KnivesThose are the ones that seem to tell themselves. And that’s because I lived them. Or played a part in them.

I don’t have to memorize them, but I DO need to practice how I share them — even just once or twice — so that I can hone the presentation’s order, flow, and relevancy.

I need to remember the ONE point I’m trying to make. (So I can avoid unnecessary tangents.)

I need to remember to include the emotions — both good and bad — that move the story forward.

And I need to understand who’s in the room with me. And why they might care about what I’m trying to say.

But first I have to find the story. And you have the same task in your marketing.

Every time you sit down to write your email newsletter or a blog post, you need to find the story that will illustrate the point you want to make.

Sometimes, the story will be your starting place. Other times, the point you’re making will call forth the story.

But either way, the story must be found.

And if you’ve not had the chance to practice doing that, there are lots of ways to get there.

One of those is via my Story Prompt cards.

In the beginning, they were just questions written on index cards, drawn at random to spark conversations and practice the art of storytelling.

I use them with  a local group of entrepreneurs at our Story Circle meetings. (If you’re ever in the Portland area, we’d love to have you join us.)

Their power comes from the act of finding and telling a story on the fly — without deep preparation.

There’s no time to plan or memorize. There’s only what you know to be true.

Because you can always tell a story about something that’s happened to you (or through you).

So whether you draw a card on your own, or use them in a group setting, don’t shy away from the thought, “I don’t know” when you read the prompt. If something doesn’t come immediately to mind, go to the “last time” you did that thing. Even if it doesn’t seem to be a good ‘answer.’ It doesn’t have to be profound or life-changing. It just has to be relevant.

If you ARE in a group, you’ll get immediate feedback on what’s interesting, engaging, or transformative about your words. And you can use that feedback to hone your story for use in any format.

Today, the cards have become a full-fledged deck available to the public. You’re invited to get a deck for your own use.

And me? The last presentation I gave was delivered online via webinar. I couldn’t look my audience in the eye or take in any sort of visual cues that might tell me how engaged they were with the content. But I was prepared because I had my stories.

And I invited them to share theirs.

What about you? How do you prepare yourself for a business presentation or talk? Share with us in a comment below.