The speaker was a young man who was illustrating his motivational speech with a story about his father. Because of his dad’s height he was able to reach up and save a toddler from a dangerous situation. The story fitted neatly into the theme of ‘use all of your attributes’.

The speaker was disappointed when he did not win the contest. “Why didn’t I win?” he asked. “My content was good, my voice was strong and I used the whole speaking area.”

He lost because he did not connect fully with the audience. He missed opportunities to bring his story to life and to make it feel important to his audience. He could have brought them closer so they felt the story rather than just hearing it.

He started the story be saying “My father was a tall man.” This is good insofar as it is relevant to the story. To have said ‘My dad was a rich man.’ would have been irrelevant here.

He could have said ‘My dad was six foot three inches tall’. This is better because it is more precise. But it could be better yet. Knowing a person’s height does not bring us close to them. Suppose he had said ‘He’s six foot three in his thick woolen work socks’. Now we’re closer to him. He could follow up with, ‘He was on his way to his job at the mill at six o’clock one winter morning when he saw…’

Now we feel for the man that cold morning. The speaker can add to the feeling by making a shivering gesture (which gives him something to do with his hands).

If all he says is ‘He was tall’ or ‘He was six foot three” then the speaker has left himself out on a limb. He needs to add something. ‘He was tall and he walked with a limp.’ Is that relevant?

‘He was tall and he worked in the mill.’ That’s relevant but something of a non sequitur and not very interesting.

As the hero of this story the dad needs to come alive to the audience. Telling the facts is nowhere near enough, they have to feel for him. ‘My dad had worked at the mill for many years’ becomes ‘My dad had got up at five o’clock every morning since he left school to make sure the saws were sharp and there were no power glitches so that the day shift could get right to work.’

Now you have a working man who takes his responsibilities seriously. He’s someone others can connect to. They can feel slightly invested in him.

Saying that he is tall, or six foot three, tells only fact – it does not reveal personhood. The audience wonders ‘Who is the person behind this fact?’ The words you choose should reveal the person behind the fact. You can take this any way you want that will serve your story and reveal the person and perhaps his relationships.

“My dad was six foot three. He towers over my mom but there’s never any doubt about who rules the household. He takes his shoes off, he mows the lawn, he walks our dog, as directed by her.”

“My dad is way taller than I am but you wouldn’t know it because he hunches his shoulders so much. I think it’s because my grandpa used to give him a bad time about being tall – no-one else in the family was tall – and it still bothers him.”

You can use a simple descriptor to build character for your speech story. Don’t pass up the opportunity to reveal the person beneath the description.

“So, um, that’s it. Thank you”

Does this look like a good way to end a speech? Yet how many times have we heard it, or something very like it?

The ending of your speech shares with the opening the distinction of being A Most Powerful Point. Give it a lot of thought and consideration. Here are nine suggestions for a powerful conclusion to your speech.

  1. Link to the opening. This is a strategy used by many professional speakers. It’s like gift wrapping a package and presenting it proudly. In your opening you made a promise about what your speech was going to deliver. Reflecting this is a way to say “There you are! I’ve delivered what I promised.” It raises the level of satisfaction for your audience.
  2. Reinforce your key message. Very succinctly sum up the core message of your speech. This acts as a reminder, and drives home that strong message.
  3. Look to the future. Quickly outline how rosy the future could be for the listener who implements the ideas you shared in your speech.
  4. Call to action. Strongly suggest, almost demand, that the audience take the initial action on their way to following your inspirational ideas.
  5. Repeat your foundational phrase. That’s the phrase that sums up your message. You should have used it at least twice already. This third time completes that magic triple and makes it more unforgettable.
  6. Leave your audience with strong words of encouragement. If your speech is motivational or inspirational leave your audience motivated or inspired. This sounds obvious but speakers often get so caught up in explaining how to live better in a certain way that they forget that the audience did not come and sit still for the instructions, they came to be motivated or inspired. Your conclusion should make doubly sure you have done that. Make it as strongly inspirational or motivational as you can.
  7. Ask a question. Or more than one question. “So, how about you? Can you take that first step? Can you start to live like…? Are you the one who can take this challenge? By the time you get to the end of your speech you should have built a rapport with your audience. They have been primed to agree with your thoughts and ideas. They are ready to respond with a ‘yes’ to your questions. Throw them the question that reminds them that any change in behaviour is now their responsibility.
  8. Finish with a story or anecdote.  This should encompass and support your message. It is one final example of the way your message plays out in real life. Tell the story with a smile, as if this is a little reward for sitting and listening for so long. Finish your story on an upbeat note, slowing your voice to indicate that you are coming to a close, and using body language to indicate “now it’s over to you”.
  9. Finish with a quotation from someone famous. Select it carefully to exactly support and replicate your message. This provides strong reinforcement to justify all you have been saying.

Spend time and thought on the conclusion of each of your speeches. Experiment with different conclusions. See which ones work best for you.  You never want to fade away as you end a speech. Finish strong to leave your audience feeling satisfied.

You’re in the audience and Mac stands up and starts his speech.

“Good evening fellow Toastmasters and welcome guests. Tonight I am going to explain to you the origin of widgets and how you can use them. First I’ll explain how widgets were first developed, then I will list the many ways they can be used and finally I will look at future uses for widgets.”

Are you asleep yet?

This is a classic way to start a speech. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them. If the material is highly important to the audience – if there’s a career-defining exam at the end – it’s probably a good way to make sure they have grasped the material. But in most Toastmaster meetings the topic is meant to be interesting rather than highly important.

So don’t go out of your way to make it dull and repetitive.

If the speaker is an expert on the topic he has some leeway to be boring because the audience senses they are getting the inside information that few others are privy to. They will struggle through boring to have access to this inside information.

If the audience has a particular interest in widgets they will be more ready to listen.

But it is more probable that it is a standard Toastmaster meeting where most people don’t know much (or care much) about widgets and Mac is a widget hobbyist, not a renowned expert.

It’s perfectly fine for him to do a speech about his hobby. However, the aim is not to drench people with facts. The aim is to make his topic so interesting that the audience will pick up information without even realizing that they are learning. Starting out boring in the very first sentences is not a good way to do that.

Throw out a few questions that most people will be unable to answer – “Do you know which country has the biggest widget in the world?” Don’t answer right away. Wait till you are almost ready to conclude, then tell them the answer – they will have been waiting and listening for it throughout your speech.

Open your informational speech with stories or anecdotes that generate interest – an unusual fact perhaps, or an unexpected use for widgets, or how a widget once saved someone’s life. Skip quickly over the plain facts that widgets are installed in all motors in planes, ships and airplanes then take time to point out the exotic. Do some research and show how widgets are used to photograph mountain gorillas in Africa, or to power sleds in the Antarctic.

Follow up by getting personal – talk about how you became interested in widgets and how they have made a difference in your life.

When we plan an informational speech – and many of the first ten Competent Communicator projects lend themselves to sharing information – we tend to take the provision of information seriously. We set about packing in the maximum number of facts. Fact delivery is not the point. In five to seven minutes the best you can do is open minds up to your topic and pique the interest of the audience.

When each of your listeners goes home they should not be saying. “Good. Now I know that widgets are made of steel (or was it aluminum?)”

They should be saying “Wow! I never knew widgets were so interesting.”

Table Topics – Ten Tips

Wow! Did you notice that alliteration!!

As I write this it is time for Table Topics contests in Toastmasters. Here are some ideas for increasing your chances of success in the contests:

1. Open strong.

Walk up to the podium purposefully, stand straight. Smile confidently. Listen very carefully to the topic to be addressed. If you realize in the middle of your speech that oops! you somehow misunderstood the topic you’ll also realize that it’s likely too late to correct course effectively at this point.

2. Don’t get hung up on the best/worst

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled with questions starting off ‘Tell us about the best experience/the worst experience/the most…’.

I waste valuable seconds trying to honestly come up with my best/worst/most. There is no award for absolute honesty here. No-one knows if you talk about your very best experience or your second best or your tenth best. No hand will come up to smack you if you speak about an ordinary bad experience rather than your absolute worst. Pick one quickly and get on with constructing your speech.

3. Tell a story.

You have two minutes. Don’t spend it wandering around vaguely spouting words that have something to do with the topic. Find a story that fits and give it all the power and magic and feeling that you’re capable of.

4 Make it a personal story.

A story about how you overcame a difficulty or obstacle will always capture the attention of the audience better than any amount of theorizing on the topic. Your best day? Perhaps it started out badly – you made a mistake or missed a plane but then the magic happened. With luck this magic came from your own efforts rather than sheer dumb luck, but a series of happy events culminated in your best day.

Your worst day? Again you  start out the story with your own mistakes or misunderstanding, but this time they lead to a downward spiral. However bad your day was, end your story with how you have built something positive from its wreckage. You learned a valuable lesson, or found a friend or figured out a path to doing it better next time.

5. Put passion and emotion into your story

Your audience – and especially the judges – need to feel your story as well as hearing it.  Try to come up with a story that packs an emotional punch for you. List a few of these stories ahead of time, dramatize them a little (or a lot). If a story packs an emotional punch for you, then it becomes much easier to transmit that punch to the audience.

6. Find a touch of humor.

The release of laughter – even a small chuckle – adds strength to a speech. It connects the speaker to the audience more strongly. Your connection to the audience is something the judges will be looking for.

7. Find the message within the story that will most resonate with the audience.

Do you expect your audience to be young? old? entrepreneurs? artists? Select stories that will best fit the group. This fit is important – you want the audience to sit forward and listen intently. You wouldn’t get this response if you told a retirement story to a group of young entrepreneurs.

8 Summarize the story and give it meaning

Use your two-minute story to inspire your audience. Focus a clear message for them. Show them how your experience can help them in their life. This is a form of summary and should be very short and concise but it encapsulates the value you have given your audience. A strong summary gives a strong, logical conclusion to your Table Topics speech.

9. Finish strongly

End that summary with a short punchy sentence delivered with a strong upswing in your voice. Smile again and look around confidently as if you know you have aced it. If you can, link this conclusion with your opening statement.

10. Read the judge’s guide.

This is downloadable from the Toastmasters International website. Make sure ahead of time that you know what the judges will be looking for and marking each contestant on. It only makes sense to plan your speech in a way that will most likely bring you more marks.

OK. I said ten tips, and there they are. If you’d like a bonus, it’s this. Enter the contest. It is one of the benefits of your membership in Toastmasters International  and you short change yourself if you don’t take advantage of this excellent opportunity to improve your speaking ability. Enter any and all speech contests – it will accelerate your progress.

Good luck!

Linking Head and Heart

A highly respected speech coach recently said “A good story links head and heart”.

Now, I’m the kind of person who hears something like that and has to prove it or disprove it to her own satisfaction. So I imagined a kid’s story about witches, dragons and escape from a moated castle. Does that link head and heart? I don’t think so. One vote against.

How about a romance? Another vote against.

Or a mystery story? Now there’s a link to the head as you try to puzzle out whodunit, but no link to the heart unless you have been made to care strongly for one of the characters in the story.  So that gets a sit-on-the-fence vote.

But what about speech stories? Think of political campaigns. “Hi, I’m John Doe. If elected I will spend a billion on the environment and a billion on infrastructure.” Compare this with “Hi, I’m Jane Doe. About ten years ago I saw this woman pushing a shopping cart full of her belongings and she looked so tired she could hardly stand up. That made me start advocating for a Food Bank and we opened one a few months later right here on Main Street.”

The environment and infrastructure are head issues. A homeless woman is a heart issue. Both need to be linked with the other aspect. The environment – where is the story that links this important issue with the experience and dreams of the listener? Homelessness – where are the stats that prove the value of intervention programmes?

The value of the story is that it brings the issue into focus for the listener, it reduces the abstraction level and makes the concept manageable in scale. It’s much easier to start with story and back it up with statistics than it is to start with stats and go to story.  Start with a story that touches the heart and you have people’s attention for what comes next. Start with stats and their eyes have glazed over already.

So in a standard Toastmaster speech – whether you want to provide information or change behaviour – get to the heart with the story and only then feed in the information or steps to be taken. Providing information right off the top skips the story step. You lose the why-should-I-care? moment.

People need the why-should-I-care? moment. Without it they might not care and they might not listen.

So when it comes to your speeches, yes, the story links heart and head. I believe the advice is sound.

“Tonight I’m going to talk to you about the issue of aphids on roses.”

Woo hoo! How exciting is that? Pardon me while I snooze.

If you’re working through your Toastmaster Competent  Communicator manual you’ll find that the first eight projects teach you the basics of putting together a strong speech. The choice of topic is up  to you. Most new speakers will choose an informational speech because it is the most straightforward. They select a topic they know  quite a lot about and they share that information.

With any luck their enthusiasm for the topic carries them along. The audience picks up on the enthusiasm and takes pleasure from that as well as appreciating the information that normally would not have come their way

But once you run out of that newness and enthusiasm the informational speech can become flat, boring and, in a word, deadly. Here are some ideas to help lift it out of its coffin.

  • Fire up the title. “The problem of aphids” isn’t going to excite the group. Put some thought into writing a title that is interesting and intriguing. A title that will have your audience listening to discover what your speech is all about. If you set them up  to be interested they might just stay interested throughout. What about “Secrets of an Aphid Killer” or “My fight with the Little Green Men”?
  • Write your own introduction. Don’t rely on the Toastmaster to come up with something. Give him/her exactly what you want them to say. Writing a speech introduction is a skill in itself. Practice it each time you speak. Don’t make it a list of honors that have come your way, just name the most important one to establish your credibility. Slip some humor in there. If you’re speaking in front of your usual club they know you – you don’t need much biographical material. Your introduction should establish a high level of interest and intrigue in your topic so your audience will be eager to hear what you have to say.
  • Open strongly. A self deprecating funny story. An amazing fact. And if you can add even more intrigue to lead into the informational part, do that.
  • Remember that facts are speech killers. OK, they don’t have to be speech killers, but that’s often what happens. Don’t try to pile on as many facts as you can fit into seven minutes. Pick about three important ones and wrap them in context (for better understanding) and in stories so they will be remembered. Your audience does not need to know every single fact about aphids. They would like to hear your stories about them, they’d like to hear about the ridiculous lengths you have been to (tiptoeing out there in your pajamas in the middle of the night with the spray can). Give them what they are hoping to hear.
  • Wrap it up strongly with a couple of dynamic sentences that will give your audience a sense of completion and satisfaction.

The informational speech is one where vocal variety and body language is especially important. Factual information or steps in a process can come out flat and monotonous. This is where your body and your voice need to take up the slack.

You might not be able to turn your ‘problem with aphids’ into a song and dance act, but you could aim in that direction.

Have You Ever…?

Most of us know ‘Have you ever…?’ as one of the classic speech openers. You usually finish the question with a common experience or a silly mistake. You’re expecting the  nodded heads of agreement.

“Have you ever woken up feeling just as tired as when you went to bed?”

“Have you ever reached for that clean, freshly pressed shirt or blouse for a job interview, only to find it grubby and creased at the bottom of the laundry pile?”

What the speaker is doing, of course, is  creating an immediate emotional connection. He’s skipping all the introductory material and grabbing for the heart-strings. He’s using a common and probably shared event to create a rapid bond and positive speech climate.

It’s not usually a deep emotional connection he’s looking for, just something to open his audience up emotionally.

Once in a while, if a speech has a load of emotional content, the opening ‘Have you ever..?’ will tap into a much deeper level. The experience may be shared but more likely it will be unique.

“Have you ever woken up, still drunk, outside your bank with the manager stepping over you?” Now you are not expecting the nodded heads of agreement. You’re expecting people to look faintly shocked. They are definitely waiting for the story that lies behind that. You are telling them that you will be sharing a unique event. You are foreshadowing and building suspense for an emotionally powerful story that has an important message.

So the ‘Have you ever..?’ can relate to commonality or to uniqueness. In either case it carries the message to the emotions deeper and faster than a plain vanilla opening. That’s why so many speakers use it.

To build  on this, follow up with a personal story very quickly – a sort of one-two punch to strengthen your hold on the audience’s deeper level of attention and focus.

But hang on – there’s a couple of caveats here.

The first is – the  ‘Have you ever?’ must relate to the theme and content of the speech, and relate tightly.  Weave it in a little bit so the connection is impossible to miss. If it does not relate fully, throw it out and find a ‘Have you ever…?’ that fits better.

The second is – not only must it fit the theme, it must fit the audience tightly too. There’s no point giving a huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ based ‘Have you ever…?’ if half the audience are business women. You get the idea.

Lastly, make sure your conclusion links back to your first ‘Have you ever…?’. Wrap up the speech package neatly so the audience applauds you with a sense of satisfaction.


Being Enchanted

The Table topic question was “Tell us about a time when you were enchanted.”

The chosen speaker, new to the club, stood for a while in silence then said “I’ve never been enchanted.”

Of course we encouraged her and made suggestions but she could not be moved. She had never been enchanted. She sat down.

How sad is that? Now, maybe some people get enchanted more easily than others. Me, I get enchanted by sunset over the ocean, by a kitten chasing its shadow, by a dog’s paw prints in dewy grass, by a spider working at his web.

There might not be speeches in those things, but how many human interactions do we see and ignore when we could be enchanted by them and build a speech around them? I was waiting in line in the coffee shop when someone found they were 50 cents short of the amount they needed. Immediately two people stepped forward offering to make up the shortage.

It was only 50 cents, for heaven’s sake, not worth noticing.

Or did it warm your heart , enchant you even, by demonstrating the generosity in the world? In other words, could there be a speech in it?

After a while as a Toastmaster your eyes can see quite ordinary things and translate them into illustrations of much larger issues. You might see two boys struggling to make a fort from old pieces of wood, or big brother teaching little brother how to bait his line for fishing. You could build a whole speech about teamwork by watching the fort come into existence. From big brother, little brother you could look at teaching styles, at family values, at the importance of encouragement, motivation, sharing.

It all depends on how you see it. There’s always the option to see nothing at all. Or you might simply note “Those boys are going to get their hands dirty.”

Creative seeing might look for the story behind the activity. Why do the boys think they need a fort? Make up the story. Maybe one of the lads says “Let’s build it here. My dad will never find us here.” And you set your mind to wondering ‘What is the story with that boy and his dad?’

How sad to only ever see ordinary, boring, flat, same-old every day. You don’t have to be enchanted every five minutes (not even every five weeks). But the more you open your mind to speech ideas, to story ideas, to what is interesting or intriguing around you the more interesting, intriguing – and even enchanting – you will find life.

As a  speaker you will become more interesting, intriguing (and enchanting). It’s a goal for most of us.



A Small Audience

Ever had to speak in front of a small audience?

This can happen in Toastmasters, especially in the summer time when people are on holiday. But still, those of us who consider ourselves speakers put time and effort into preparing a speech. Then we stand up in front of six or eight people.

Often they are the same faces – the regulars, not a new or unfamiliar face in the bunch. Sometimes they scatter themselves around the available space. Sometimes the acoustics are such that your voice echoes slightly, and this adds to your discomfort. It can be discouraging.

You ask yourself “Why did I bother? Why did I put all this time and effort into a speech for these few people?”

There are those who would say that if there was anyone who was meant to hear your message they will be there. That could be true. Certainly, if anyone in that small group  learns or gains a new perspective from what you presented, then it’s time well spent.

Usually I say that you, the speaker, should consider the audience and forget about yourself. In this instance, though, it looks to me like the opposite. This is the time for you to really shine as a speaker. It’s easy enough to be full of energy and motivation in front of a good-sized group.  It’s not so easy in front of a handful of regulars. Do it anyway.

This is the time to reach down and dredge up every drop of energy and enthusiasm you possess. This is the time to deliver as if you had 200 avid supporters in front of you. This is the time you grow as a speaker, because if you can face this group and be enthusiastic, you can deliver a strong speech anywhere. This is tough. This is where you ‘pay your dues’.

This is also where you can experiment as a speaker – try something new that you’ve been a bit reluctant to try in front of a larger group. If it works, great! You can add it to your collection of useful techniques. If it doesn’t work, or it needs tweaking to be more successful, well, only a few people saw the experimental prototype.

Don’t look on a small Toastmaster audience as being less than ideal. It’s just different. It’s a different type of learning. You’re growing in a different way.

This is your opportunity to stand up like the accomplished, polished speaker you are. Give all six people the best experience you can – that’s how you make it a good and useful experience for yourself.

Do you ever have moments of wondering “What’s the point?” Or on even worse days “Why do I bother?”

The point is…and you bother because… you make a difference.

And if you’re a Toastmaster you can stand up and tell a story about that.

It’s not that you were a hero. (“Let me tell you about the time I jumped into a raging river and pulled three dear little children and their puppy to safety.”)

It’s that someone or some event taught you an important lesson and you can now pass it along.

The difference you can make is in seeing a truth and being able to tell a story that contains and explains that truth and shares it.

Maybe you can make it exciting. Or funny. Or both. Maybe it was an event that affected you so deeply that it takes you a few years to be able to wrap words around it and present it to an audience.

What matters is that what someone said or what someone did moved you a step along life’s journey. And if you share it you can perhaps make someone else’s life journey a little smoother.

We all hit patches in life where we are a bit stuck. Nothing seems to be working. We try and fail. Others don’t help us the way we’d hoped. We have a right to expect something and it doesn’t happen.

And then we get a glimpse of a new perspective, or a kick in the pants or a sign that we take for encouragement. There’s a story there, just waiting to be shared.

That you got lifted out of your funk (or found a way to lift yourself out) is great. But the “What’s the point” moment is the time when you share it to help lift someone else up. It’s when you dress it up into a whole story that keeps your audience hanging on your words, or when you make it emotional and compelling.

The “Why do I bother” moment is when someone comes up to you afterwards and says “Thank you. That’s exactly what I needed to hear.”

Your life is important to your family and friends, but as a Toastmaster it is important (because you make it important) to all your audiences too. Your tiny life-lifting experiences, built into stories, give you the power to influence far more widely than a non-Toastmaster ever could.

When I started at Toastmasters I thought it was all about me making better speeches. It’s not. It’s about me making a better me.

What about you?