Archive for the ‘Brighten the story’ Category

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.



Read Full Post »

Have you ever listened to a fairly new speaker and found yourself entranced by what they had to say? You were so drawn in  to what they were saying that you forgot that they were short on technique and perhaps even going a little over time.

How is it that they have captured the audience just as experienced speakers can do (on a good day).

Maybe it is because they are still thinking like the audience rather than being 100% speaker. Once we’ve got a few speeches under our belt we start to think like a speaker. This is good; it shows we’re progressing. But maybe we’ve lost our audience persona in the process.

The new speaker is concerned about ‘How can I make them listen to me?’ And not so much with ‘This is what I’m planning to speak about.’

The new speaker still sees themselves as part of the audience, hoping for an enjoyable few minutes. The more experienced speaker is worrying about gestures, movement, pauses.

The new speaker sees the spectre of failure and tries harder.

Some of the elements that grab and hold the attention of the audience:

– a speech that was written specifically with this audience in mind

–  an opening that is about ‘you’ not about ‘I’

– eye contact and a smiling face

– stories

– vivid word pictures

– a direct and understandable vocabulary

– the feeling that the speaker really cares about this topic. Words are underpinned by energy and personal involvement

Last week I heard a speech given by a new Toastmaster. It was her third speech and it was magic. Her audience was completely enthralled. No, it was not technically perfect. If I were to cavil I could pick out a few technical flaws. But it was magic.

Magic goes a long way in keeping the attention of your audience. Magic  is what the audience is hoping for. Magic is what they will remember. They will forget (if they even noticed) that her pauses were pretty much non-existent. They will remember her smile and her message.

And isn’t that what we all want?

Read Full Post »

It’s so easy to do flat writing. Unfortunately flat writing, when you stand up to deliver it as a speech or a story, turns into a flat presentation.

“I went into the room where there were ten people waiting.”

Nothing wrong with that grammatically. but there’s nothing to pull your audience into the presentation either. It’s flat writing.

First, how did you enter the room. Tell us because the audience would like to see you in action. Did you rush in, stroll in, stride in, sidle in, creep in? Find the verb that shows your movement.

Well, I just walked kind of ordinary.

“OK. so what else did you do? Push open the glass doors? Trip over the mat? Read the sign to make sure it was the right room? Straighten your back?

Try for an action that reveals your emotional state.

“I hesitated before I pushed open the door.”

“I straightened my spine and marched smartly into the room”

“I entered with my usual confidence, smiling.”

“I strode in and let the door slam behind me.”

Now your audience is getting a sense of you. Select the mood you want to portray and choose a verb to show it exactly.

And be exact about the room, too. Is it a board room, a kitchen, a day care? Messy, sunny, formal?

How about those people who are waiting? Older ladies? Entrepreneurs? Managers? Define them, then show them:

Older ladies clutching handbags, entrepreneurs gazing at cell phones, managers with ties matching their shirts.

How do you feel about the ten of them?

Were you hoping for 50? Is it the same old ten? Are you shocked because you only expected two?

Show your feeling in your posture and movement:

“I wasn’t going to show I was disappointed so I smiled as if I’d just won the lottery.”

Again the audience is drawn in because you are showing them the true you.

Big Bonus

These action verbs give you a way to move purposefully as you speak. The action is right there for you. You can shove the door, stride in, allow your face to show disappointment or that beaming smile.

This is movement that is intrinsic to the story, completely natural, no mindless pacing across the stage. It allows you to convey emotion in a way that is both natural and subtle. and it allows you to pause so you can drive that emotion home.

You don’t have to say “I was happy” or “I felt angry”. Your action words and your posture and movement show it. Your audience feels it for themselves – you are reaching them at a deeper level. Your message has a better chance of being retained.

Read Full Post »

The club’s Table Topics contest was over and someone asked me how they could have done better.

My answer: Put a story or anecdote into your speech to brighten it up and keep the audience listening.

Blank look. “But where do I find anecdotes?”

It was a learning moment for me. Some people see anecdotes everywhere; others never notice them. They just don’t see the story. They don’t see that there is the potential for story if only they poked around a bit and supplied some imagination

It’s like some people have an ear for music; others can’t help singing flat. Some people know immediately which color will look attractive on them and others go out in a mixture of orange and purple.

Some people are sensitive to the story, or even the potential for story, while for others it’s just another boring day.

I think it was Gretchen O’Donnell who said “Some people go for a driver’s license and all they get is a driver’s license. Others come away with a driver’s license and an anecdote.”

So are those with a tin ear for story doomed forever? I think you can start to exercise that sensitivity as if it were a muscle. Practice looking for story. Set a goal. ‘Today I will find and record at least one anecdote.’

Where will you find it? Ask questions. Listen (even overhear odd snippets of conversation and build on what might be the story behind those words). Observe behavior – movement, dress, reactions, the way people relate to each other.

Become sensitive to speech patterns, especially if they don’t quite fit the situation – someone asks angrily for a cup of coffee, someone is very upset when there are no bananas in the produce section. If you can discover the reason, great. If not, wonder what could be the story.

Watch relationships and interactions – mom and child, boyfriend/girlfriend, customer/sales clerk. Learn to feel when it’s pretty routine or when words or movements are a bit ‘off’.  Watch for a clue to the story behind this.

Ask questions, or make politely questioning observations . One day I saw a woman wearing a brightly colored knitted hat – not what most shoppers in the mall were wearing. I stopped and admired it and she told me a delightful story about her grandmother’s knitting. Bingo! Not only did I enjoy a pleasant chat with a stranger but I came away with an anecdote.

When you find anecdotes put them into your anecdote bank in a notebook or computer. When you get plenty, sort them in whatever way makes sense to you. Take time to build a few into longer stories (I can describe – from imagination – the  hat lady’s grandma and her house, her arthritic hands and her crotchety husband.)

Your anecdote bank is your secure investment in brighter speeches of all kinds.

Read Full Post »

You can improve almost any speech by adding a touch of humor. If you’re setting off to present a funny speech, then the more humor the better. But even quite a serious speech can benefit from a quick poke to the funny bone.

For one thing this humor is unexpected and therefore funnier because of the element of surprise. Also it helps keep people awake and paying attention. Who knows when the speaker might give us a break from all that useful information and give us the sudden pleasure of a laugh or a smile. Wouldn’t want to miss that!

Comedians have a whole list of techniques for humor – making the ordinary funny. One of these is exaggeration. A couple of suggestions:

  • really exaggerate. Big time, not just a little bit
  • find a standard of comparison, the more bizarre the better.

So, let’s take a couple of ordinary statements and ramp them up;

– When I go to the grocery store I often buy more than I intended

– Traffic is very heavy between my house and my mother’s house

– My aunt carries a large purse and it is always full of stuff.

I went to the grocery store today for bread and milk. I came home with bread, milk, a case of mac & cheese, a 10 pound bag of pecans, a gallon can of tomato juice, and enough burger patties to feed an army. Did I mention that I live alone?

Now the live alone part may or may not be true – it just adds the finishing touch.

Traffic is so heavy between my house and my mother’s – it’s about five miles, but I pack a lunch to eat in the car.

My aunt’s purse is the size of Texas. I tried to pick it up one day, dislocated my shoulder and dropped it. Out felt all the usual stuff plus a leash for her dog (she doesn’t have a dog), gardening clippers, a Christmas tree ornament, seasickness pills (she lives in Ohio) and some old-fashioned heavy binoculars. When I asked her, she just said,

“Well, you never know…”

To add that light touch to your next speech try a few unexpected exaggerations. It’s a technique many comedians use.


Read Full Post »

The only way I will care about your story is if you make me care. You can’t expect your reader or audience to care unless you make it happen. You are in control. You create the emotional link. Think of three basic steps.

1. Your idea

Your story can be stand-alone or it can be illustrating a point. Either way, the basic idea is one that your readers or audience can relate to. It seems obvious. A group of women with small children will relate to a story about toilet training but a group of business men will think that a waste of time.

Let’s look at those businessmen. Are they entrepreneurs? Franchisees? Local business? International? Well established?  Focused on a product or a service? In other words you need to know more about this audience as you formulate your ideas. Define as precisely as you can the concept of what this audience is looking for. What is their primary interest? What are they hungry to know more about?

Once you can state what they are hungry for you have found your basic idea.

2. Your perspective

You are speaking or writing about this topic or idea because other people want a piece of the experience and knowledge you have. Experience and knowledge add up to an educated perspective. Some people may have the knowledge – they may have read lot about it. Some people may have hands-on experience but feel they lack the theoretical background that would give them a wider understanding.

Your perspective melds these two together to  unite the best in both those worlds. And you have stories and anecdotes from your experience to bring this to life. Every point you make you will be illustrated by a carefully chosen story from your experience. This is the story that vividly adds context and meaning to your basic idea.

Your  story or anecdote and your perspective are closely linked. The story supports your idea and your perspective – it it doesn’t do this, then pick another story.

3. Your words

Once you’ve found an idea that will draw people in and a perspective that offers your unique knowledge and experience you can start building your story to give that idea depth and meaning. A story is built from words. Try to use simple direct words wherever that is possible.

Tell your story through the senses. What do you see in the story – a landscape, a streetscape, a room? What components can you see? Trees, parked cars, a bookshelf crammed full of books?

What can you hear in the story – bird song, the screech of brakes, heavy metal music? Is there the smell of cedar, garbage or furniture polish? Do you feel the wind, the elevator button or the smooth leather chair? Can you taste the tomato in the sandwich, the popcorn, the repulsion of milk turned sour?

All the senses draw people into your story, bringing your idea to life and making your perspective real to audience or readers. and we haven’t even started on the immediacy of dialogue.

So, to make people care about what you have to say choose and hone your idea with care, present it through the lens of your own knowledge and experience and spend time selecting the words that will bring it to life.



Read Full Post »

Is your speech bright, technicolor, memorable? Often people think of speeches as dull, brown, boring. Not your speeches, of course, yours are not like that.

But how do you make your speech vivid and memorable? First you write stories and anecdotes into them. You never write a point without adding – at the very least – a vivid word picture. Better still, you add an anecdote showing people in action.

Let’s say you are doing a speech about emergency preparedness. Everyone, you say, should have a ‘grab and go’ bag. It’s a good, valid point, but easy to forget in a busy life. To make it memorable you have an anecdote about the family who didn’t have a grab and go bag when the earthquake or flood hit. You show them running around trying to find the important papers, their glasses, wallet, cell phone, medications, food for a couple of days. You show them getting in each others way, falling over the dog. Oh yes! The dog! What about his food?

You show, don’t tell, the confusion that can result. It can be funny – people remember better when they laugh. But then you bring out a grab and go bag and show, don’t tell the contents.

And if you use Powerpoint, make sure to throw in a few cartoons, just to wake people up.

Description can be an attention-killer. Always add a standard of comparison, preferably with a touch of humor. If something is large, or old, ask yourself How large? How old? Then use vivid description. “No bigger than a baby’s fingernail”, “Longer than two football fields”. “Well past retirement age”, “Older than the pyramids” “Too young to drive.”

Go through your speech and insert sensory words – a color, a texture, a taste, a sound, a smell – especially a smell if you can work it in. Did you smell the coffee brewing this morning?

Go through your speech again and take out all the ‘There is/there are/ there were/it is/it was. That makes you look at your verbs and choose active verbs that bring movement to mind. That sense of movement will add life to your speech.

Sometimes you can choose your speech topic and you can choose one that is lively and vibrant. Making it colorful and memorable isn’t too difficult. Other times your topic is not yours to choose. You know you need to do a speech about greater productivity, or sales figures. Find the people who are producing or selling. Interview them and get their stories.

The personal story, yours or theirs, will bring you speech to life.

Read Full Post »

When someone tells me it was an action-packed movie I know there were lots of explosions, gunfire, high-speed chases, fast cars and planes. Action is important in a movie, but your story doesn’t all have to have the subtlety of a tank.

Your story might feature a grandmother in a rocking chair gazing down at her baby granddaughter. The room is quiet, with low lighting and a glowing wood fire. It would clearly be shocking to have a gang of gun-toting thugs burst in through the window.

It’s a matter of scale. The grandmother scene is a 2 on the Actionmeter Scale, the armed thugs are a 9. They don’t match.

You might have the baby’s mother rushing into the room, upset about something, but that’s as violent as you’d want the action in that story.

You could take advantage of the strong contrast between the peace of the initial scene and the disturbance brought in by the mother. If your objective was to create a contrast that would work.

But perhaps you want the peaceful initial scene to be sustained through the whole story, in order to maintain a feeling of gentleness and loving. In that case you have to leave the disturbing woman out of it. Once she comes crashing in, it’s almost impossible to go back.

You can still have action, but at a more subtle level. The grandmother touches the baby’s head, pulls the blanket tighter around the wee one, eases her back in the chair. A log drops in the fireplace, a clock ticks. These tiny actions punctuate and reinforce the grandmother’s thoughts as she contemplates her past, the baby’s future or both.

To heighten the sense of protection and calm in the room you might create contrast by having a gale blowing outside. To reinforce the calm you might have a curtain open to a full moon or a flower garden. You might hear crickets or coyotes.

The grandmother might notice the smell of wood smoke or the softness of the blanket. She might snag a finger nail in the tiny knitted jacket. All of these prompt her thoughts and bring action into the scene.

All the action in the story, however subtle it might be, supports your theme and your plot and is tied tightly to it. Subtle action is every bit as evocative as pow-pow and vroom-vroom.

Read Full Post »


I always seem to be preaching about using vivid words and keeping in mind the five senses when you are preparing a speech or writing a story. I got my come-uppance last week when I did a speech – which was, in effect, a complete story – and asked an experienced speaker to evaluate it. Naturally he said a number of kind things about the story, but his tip for improvement was “Use the five senses more”.

Ouch. Hoist by my own petard.

Once my pride had healed I wrote on top of my hard copy a list of the five senses. Sight. Hearing. Taste. Touch. Smell. I wrote them in capital letters and in red. Then I went through the story, carefully building in sensory words. It went something like this, with my additions in capitals:

– In the cramped back street of a crowded industrial city she BREATHED IN THE METALLIC SMOG.

– He made CHEESE sandwiches

– The family of ducks QUACKED in the canal

– She wore her new NAVY BLUE skirt

– The train, PACKED WITH A LOAD OF young soldiers WAVING AND SINGING

– …a garden where the baby could play ON THE SOFT GRASS

– Her mother GRABBED HER HANDBAG and hurried over…

By my count I have at least one example of each sense in this list. You’ll notice that as much as possible I avoid straight adjectives, ‘navy blue’ and ‘soft’ being the exceptions. Each small addition adds to the strength of the story, making it more real for the listener.

Next time I’ll try to take my own advice before someone else has to tell me.

Read Full Post »

“Yeah, but…”

When you are writing a story “Yeah, but…” is almost as magical a phrase as “What if…?”

Sometimes, as I’m writing a story I realize that everything is going just too well. Whether it is fiction or a personal story the protagonist is moving along  too smoothly through life. Any obstacles fail to slow him down for long and victories come fairly easily. There are two problems with this.

First, life isn’t like that for most of us. We have real problems. Loss of sleep, gut-wrenching problems. The problems in your story need to be of this same high quality. Cheap and easy problems won’t do.

Second, a problem-free or easy problem story is usually dull. Readers and audiences don’t care for dull. They tune out. They are just not interested in someone else’s happy, easy, problem-free life because it is both unrealistic and boring.

So if you find that the story you are writing is perking along happily and easily, you had better insert a “Yeah, but…”‘ A “yeah, but…” is the train wreck, maybe major, maybe minor (major is better – more interesting). It’s the point where all that chirpy happiness come to a crashing halt because….

This is the problem, the obstacle. Maybe it’s one of many or maybe, in an anecdote, it’s the only problem. Make it a doozie. Remember in the fairy story the evil godmother put a spell on the princess so she fell asleep for a hundred years? Not a couple of weeks, not till her next birthday, but a whole century.

So when you are planning your next problem, think of your first stab at it as ‘she slept for a couple of weeks’. Work on the problem until it develops the same devastating quality as ‘she slept for a century’. This will make your protagonist have to work that much harder and more inventively to overcome it.

That’s good. It will make your story more riveting. People will not tune out or turn to something else. They might even remember it and be changed by it.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »