“Once upon a time . . .” Did you ever say those words? Sure you have. They are often used to begin a story. Just saying those four familiar words gets our attention because we enjoy hearing stories.

Everyone likes to hear stories. Kids are more likely to learn, teachers are more likely to be listened to, and speakers are more likely to be remembered, when stories are included in whatever they are talking about. After doing lots of public speaking, I finally learned that when you include stories that are humorous, self-deprecating, trust building and emotional, people are less likely to say, “When is this going to end?”

Once upon a time I was on my way to Warroad to give a teacher in-service. The last thing my wife, Kathy, said to me as I left our home in Bemidji was, “Be sure your red undershorts don’t show through your pants.”

I didn’t think anything of it but about half way to Blackduck I stretched out my leg and “rrrrip.” The crotch in my pants had ripped and sure enough, there were my red undershorts. I spent the ride to Warroad trying to brainstorm ways to handle this. I was too far along to turn back and change my pants. I thought of everything from taping my pants together with masking tape to asking the librarian at the school for a stapler so I could staple the pants together. I ended up buying two pair of new pants in Warroad that were on sale for two pairs for $39.

I used the story as my intro for the teachers. It was a good segue way into how teachers need to build trust in the classroom. When stories are a little funny and self-deprecating, people are more likely to trust you because the stories show that you are human.

I learned to laugh at my mistakes once upon a time when I was with my high school girlfriend parked in a lover’s lane. Upon leaving I backed out across the county road and into the ditch. I could see a yard light about a mile away. I knew the owners of the farm because we both attended the same church. My girlfriend and I marched up the gravel road to the farmhouse. As I recall she was cracking jokes the whole way. I couldn’t find anything humorous in the situation.

I knocked on the door and when Mr. Antl appeared, I told him what happened. He smiled a little, not really too put out about having to get on his tractor, and said, “You’re not the first one to back out of that place into the ditch.”

The next day the incident was all over the school. “Hey, John, did you get stuck last night?” As I recall, my girlfriend suggested we jack the car up to get out. That made it even funnier. It took me a long time to laugh about it. I have used this story when telling others about the need to laugh at your mistakes rather than agonize over them.

I didn’t think it was so funny when once upon a time my son drove our pickup through the garage door. When Kathy and I left to go berry picking, our son and his friends were in the driveway playing basketball. Our pickup was also parked in the driveway.

When we returned home, we noticed the pickup was halfway in the garage and halfway out of the garage. I said to Kathy, “I don’t think I left it that way.” And then we saw that the garage door had not been lifted up. Our son came out of the house and said that he did it. At first I was very upset and then I calmed down and asked him if anyone got hurt. He said, “No.” I had him take some money out of his savings account to help pay for a new door.

Years later I had my son in a speech class at NTC. In one of his speeches, he told of the incident and said that actually it was one of the other boys who had driven the car through the garage door. It was an emotional moment for me knowing my son protected his friends at his expense.

It’s important to put some emotion into your storytelling and this story is filled with emotion. Emotions are tied to instant memory. The more emotional a presentation is, the more likely people will remember it.

Imagine going to another country to pick up your daughter. Once upon a time, Kathy and I went to Guatemala to meet our future daughter and spend a week with her to show the director of the orphanage that we were the right fit. As I recall it took our daughter, Caroline, about three or four days before she smiled. Of course it had a happy ending and we all lived happily ever after.

Speaking in public, regardless of the age of the speaker or the circumstance is not an easy thing to do. It might take you a few times before you will smile. I do know this, however, if you include stories in your presentations that are funny, self-deprecating, personal and filled with emotion, you will be just fine and your listeners will react the same way because, you see, we all have stories to tell. Now it’s your turn. Once upon a time. . .

Riddle: Why do bees hum? (Because they don’t know the words.) By the way, don’t forget to sing or hum a little tune when speaking. You will definitely get the attention of your listeners. What if you can’t sing? That’s okay. People will give you credit for trying.


I will be at Lueken's South from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday, Jan. 11, to promote 100% graduation as well as my new book, “Remember to Hug Your Grandma.” Hope to see you there.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.