How to Engage Your Audience Using Metaphors

Using stories as a metaphor to make a point is a great way for public speakers to engage their audiences and make their speeches memorable.

That’s exactly what former Stanford baseball star Mike Robbins did Saturday in speaking to the Northern California chapter of the National Speakers Association. His talk focused on the importance of authenticity for public speakers, which is the theme of his new book Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken (Jossey-Bass/Wiley).

Being authentic is often a challenge for public speakers because sometimes the more they rehearse to familiarize themselves with their material, the more their body language can appear to be staged, rather than authentic.

Robbins, who now makes a living as an author and public speaker, was drafted by the Kansas City Royals and played three seasons in the minors, before an arm injury led to the end of his pro career. One of many metaphorical stories he told Saturday that was especially memorable and relatable to public speakers centered round a minor league teammate named Geoff Jenkins.

Jenkins was a massive guy, who would later go on to play 12 years in the Majors, mostly with the Milwaukee Brewers. Robbins described the burley guy as always swinging for the fences, regardless if it was batting practice or the ninth inning of a tie ball game.

“One time, Jenkins swung so hard in bating practice he broke the platform he was hitting on,” said Robbins, adding that he then walked off the platform flexing his chest with pride.

“Why do you swing so hard?” Robbins recalled a teammate asking him.
“In case I hit it,” Jenkins replied.

This story wound up wrapping up one of Robbins’ key points: When giving a speech, some people hold back, fear that they might make a mistake. But they should be like Jenkins and put everything out there. “Don’t hold back. You might hit the ball.”

Another one of Robbins’ stories on Saturday demonstrated that the challenge of being authentic is certainly not restrained to public speakers. For this, he described the day he had to pitch the Be Yourself book proposal to the president of his publisher. Initially, he assumed he was driving into San Francisco from the suburbs for an informal brainstorming meeting with his editor. However, his editor phoned and said the president was flying in from New York to join them.

This last minute bit of information compelled Robbins to initiate an emergency conference call with his wife to script what he would say in this all-of-a-sudden not-so-informal meeting. Hours later, Robbins found himself in full pitch-mode in a Jossey-Bass conference room.

The pitch, however, only lasted a few minutes, before he nearly broke down, and said to the president: I appreciate you flying here to meet with me. But I find myself putting on an act to impress you. Is it O.K. if I stop this act?

What unfolded next was a very candid conversation and brainstorming session leading to the book outline.

Robbins left that meeting with much uncertainty on how that discussion was perceived. He later got a call from his editor, who said: “After you left, we talked about you.”

“Oh?” Robbins gulped.

His editor said that was one of the most unusual meetings with the president. Then added: Robbins had the green-light to write the book.

If you are reading this blog post and thinking this is the formula to get a book deal, you may want to make sure you already have had the success of a published bestseller. Robbins’ first act was Focus on the Good Stuff: The Power of Appreciation, also bankrolled by the same publisher.



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