Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Pro and Con

Let’s say you’re planning a speech that covers two sides of a controversial topic. I’ll choose one that shouldn’t get too many people hot under the collar.

‘Buses are better than trains.’

Of course your topic will be much less blah – you’ll choose it to get your audience aroused and possibly change their opinion. You’d like them to change their opinion so it becomes the same as yours which, naturally, is the right one.

You plan to research this, come up with several points for each side for the body of your speech, then make a rationally thought out concluding statement that buses are better than trains (or vice versa).

But how do you present all this without sounding dull and pedantic and standing stiffly at the podium?

You start with an opening that connects you with your audience – a ‘you’ question such as “When was the last time you rode the bus?” Or an ‘imagine’ question – “Imagine riding a train that was clean and on time”.

As you transition into the body of your speech you remember to present one side of the issue from one side of the stage, and the other side of the issue from the opposite side of the stage. You move between the two sides so the audience has visual clarity as well as auditory clarity. If you make a balanced statement you stand in the middle.

(Remember to illustrate all your points with a story or an anecdote.)

You don’t have to march back and forth, and your audience may not even notice what you’re doing. It’s called subliminal learning.

When you come to wrap up the speech you will make your strong concluding statement at centre stage. “So you can see that in this region, buses are a much better transportation option than trains.” Again it is a ‘you’ statement that connects the issue to the audience.

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This is a shout out to all the people who read this blog in countries where freedom still a mirage.

Something happened recently that jolted me into the realization that not everyone can read what they want to read or write and publish what they want others to read. I’m not talking about illiteracy (a whole other issue), I’m talking about censorship.

It takes no courage for me, in Canada, to write whatever I want to write. All it takes is some research, some thought and my fingers on the keyboard. And, to be honest, my thoughts are not particularly deep or world shaking.

But what about those who are trying to express to others thoughts and ideas about freedom and other important issues?d  What about people trying to bring about change in a country or region where dissent is frowned on or dangerous? In repressive regimes writing your opinions can be a dangerous occupation. Jail and “disappearance” are definite possibilities.

If I want to write about the deficiencies of my government, at whatever level, I’m free to do that. No courage required, just the energy to get angry enough to do it.

Short of libel and slander, I can lash out as angrily as I want, use every hateful word in the dictionary and let my sarcasm have full rein. No courage required.

Or I can go back to ancient philosophers and point out errors of logic and perception in erudite prose. I could write fiction that lasers into any evils or personal weaknesses I see in government ministers. It could get me a lots of useful personal publicity. It might require talent but it doesn’t require courage.

Within the regimes where the media is controlled personal publicity is probably the last thing a writer wants. Below the radar would be an excellent place to be.

So as we tell our stories and write our speeches in free countries spare a thought for those who cannot do this. Spare a thought for those whose writing and speaking require courage. For those who desperately feel the need to have their ideas heard. For those who are not allowed to read this.

If courage were required, could I write? Could you?

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Okay, so I’ve written this story or anecdote.  It says what I wanted to say, fits with my speech, has a strong character, action and dialogue and it comes to a solid conclusion. Great stuff! Ready to go!

Not so fast. This is the point at which a carpenter making a table would have joined the top to the four legs. Yes, it’s a table; maybe it has the makings of a very attractive table but it lacks the finishing touches.

For a story the easiest of the finishing touches is the proof reading. This is a check of the spelling, punctuation and typos. Once they are cleaned up you embark on what editors call a ‘substantive edit’.  You dissect the story piece by piece answering questions such as:

Can I make the characters sharper?

Can I make the action more dramatic?

Can I make the transitions smoother?

Can I make the verbs more vivid?

Is the sequencing the best it can be? Would it be more logical if I moved paragraph three to before paragraph two?

Is there anything in here that anyone could possibly misunderstand?

These are hard questions and it is all too easy to look the story over quickly and say to yourself  “Yes, yes, that’s all fine.”

For a more honest and thorough evaluation ask a friend to check these questions for you. A true friend will take the time to read or listen to your story and tell you the truth, however gently. Then it’s up to you to take this gift of an honest critique and use it to make your story even better.

Yes, it takes courage to deliberately expose your new-born baby story to an analytical eye. But if you want the best, highly-polished story have a friend help you to edit it. You’ll discover (darn it) flaws you never saw yourself and you can fix them before anyone else sees them.

It will take your story to a new and higher level.

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When I first started writing my stories were about people very different from myself – different age, gender, nationality, living lives not at all like mine.  After all, my life was so ordinary, I thought, that no-one would be the least bit interested in hearing about it.

As I’ve grown and learned about writing fiction I’ve gradually added more of myself into the mix. Has my life become more interesting? Well maybe, but that’s not what made the difference. The difference lies in my confidence level. At last I’ve come to have confidence – not that my life is one long interesting story- but that there are enough semi-interesting bits in it that I can build from.

It is much the same in speech-making. You give one speech about yourself, then what? Many beginning speakers hide comfortably behind informational speeches – often ‘how to’s, with factual information drawn from their own knowledge base or experience. That’s fair enough. But at some point you have to start adding in some examples, then a little anecdote that brings your point home more forcefully. All the time you are building story-telling skills.

It’s not hard to tell an anecdote that happened to someone else. Telling a personal anecdote is a little harder. All sorts of questions arise. Will I make myself look stupid? Will they think I’m showing off? Is it really that interesting? You have to take that leap of confidence, and to do that comfortably you have to make sure that the story is interesting.

Yes, a good speaker – and that is YOU – can make any story interesting. Quite new speakers have held me fascinated with an anecdote of walking their dog in the evening, of making a hot drink for a child sick with a cold, of buying produce in the supermarket. None of these strike me as fascinating topics in themselves but the speaker had the confidence to see the validity in the core of the story and build from there.

The more timid story teller or speaker will say “No-one wants to hear about me walking the dog or making a hot drink.” And if you tell it plain and simple, sure enough it might not be interesting. Have the confidence to build it into what you want it to be, with relevance to your topic and details we can all relate to.

Then all you have to do is throw in the gestures and  the vocal variety and present it as a gift to the audience.

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This book was recommended to me a couple of years ago and I actually bought it, rather than borrowing it from the library. Good decision. It’s one of the few books I re-read because its message is so valuable.

Jim Loehr is a sports psychologist, working with top class professional athletes. So what has this got to do with story? He believes that each of us is living a life that is a story. For many of us, if we are honest, the story is not a very happy one. Many people, for example, work hard but feel frustrated and unrewarded, that no-one understands them and that what they are doing has little value. The author believes that these negative personal stories need to change and that by changing our actions we can change our story to one that is happier and more fulfilling.

At the same time he believes that our lives are full of small stories – incidents or, as we might call them, anecdotes but we often fail to see the significance of these. If we rail on about having had a minor car crash, inviting all around to a game of ‘ain’t it awful’, we have learned nothing.  But if we choose to find significance in it – maybe we remember that we were driving too fast, that we were worrying about something and not paying attention, that we realize just how valuable our health and physical ability is – then we have used the incident to make our life story a better one. And, if you are a speaker or writer, you have something to add to your arsenal of anecdotes and stories.

The author also strongly reinforces our belief that story is important, that it can convey our messages with great effectiveness to our readers, our listeners – and to ourselves. It is a valuable book for your personal development as well as for your story telling.

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That’s right, inventory.

I know that, as a topic, it doesn’t quite seem to fit but bear with me.

I usually write these posts every second or third day and I try to decide on the topic the day before I write. That way I can mull it over and have it in some sort of shape mentally before I sit down in front of the computer. The trick lies in finding the topic. I might find a clue in something I read, or in something someone says but most likely I’ll find it in one of my idea files or notebooks.

Ideas for stories, articles or anecdotes are your inventory as a writer or speaker. Just as a widget maker would have a warehouse full of widgets sorted by size, shape, colour so you should have some storage space dedicated to your inventory of ideas, quotes, titles, memorable characters and so on. A truly organized person would have these all in one or a series of notebooks or computer files.

I’d like you to believe that I am a truly organized person, but no. I’m like a squirrel who hides his winter food supply all over the place and relies on random chance for his meals on snowy days. But I do recognize that these ideas, quotes and characters are my inventory. I need to collect them and note them in some fashion so I can make good use of them.

I might use them just as they are, or dress them up a bit to fit the need. I might use one together with another idea because the mathematics of writing ideas is wonderfully elastic – one little idea plus another little idea can form a humungus idea, or spin off a dozen new little ideas.

When you first come across an idea gem you might have no idea what use you will eventually put it to. It doesn’t matter. Ideas are the raw material for your speeches and stories. Characters and quotes will enrich your communication. Don’t for a moment believe that you will remember them. Note them in whatever way works for you.

If you can keep your notes organized, great. If not, well,  sometimes randomness creates its own serendipity.

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The Gift of Listening

I remember as a child that when all the extended family got together for celebrations such as Christmas I could always rely on one or two of the older people to start telling stories. Then my mother, or perhaps my uncle would, quite politely, intervene  “Grandpa (or Great Uncle John) why don’t you have a look at this new book/help me with the potatoes/take a little nap?” and that would be the end of the story. Conversation resumed around me and I hardly ever found out how the story ended.

I made one of those resolutions that every child makes – “When I grow up I will never….” and in this case it ended, “I will never stop grandpa telling stories.” This is one of the few resolutions I actually kept – not just for grandpa and Great Uncle John but for anyone who wanted to tell me a story that was important in their life.

Grandpa and Great Uncle John are long dead of course but in every family gathering there are older people with stories to tell. You can give them no better gift than listening. Really listening. Listening as if there is an exam to follow. Asking a few questions for clarification.

So you heard the same story last Christmas and the Christmas before. Don’t just ignore it, ask questions that will elicit another story. Grandmas and grandpas and great uncles will not be around for ever. Catch their stories now.

I’m using the word ‘Christmas’ because that’s my frame of reference for a big family party. Maybe your parties are for  birthdays, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Chinese New Year. The name of the occasion doesn’t matter. What matters is that you honour the elders of your family by hearing and understanding their stories.

Their history is your history too. Their stories are their gift of that history to you. Don’t miss the opportunity.

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A Bedtime Story

I was watching this ad on TV where the mom curled up in bed with her adorable little daughter and read about two lines of a story. Her ‘daughter’, on cue, yawned and fell asleep with her adorable lashes curled adorably on her adorable cheeks.

This is not the way I remember it happening. In my reality my kids stayed awake until the end of the story and then asked for another one, and another. They were more insatiable than adorable. Maybe the problem was that the stories were too interesting, too action-filled. They needed to stay awake to find out what happened next.

I’m guessing that you have never deliberately written a story designed to put someone to sleep. It would need to be a story so pointless, with characters so boring and with so little action that eyelids would droop and snores would fill the room. Usually this is not the goal of the storyteller.

So let’s look at those three aspects of your story or anecdote.

1. Does it have a point?

Does it inspire, motivate, teach? Yes, the point can just be entertainment. But then it must entertain – it must be exciting or funny or heart-rending. You can’t just call it entertaining because you can’t think of any other point to it.

2. Are the characters interesting?

Do they seem alive and real. Can the audience or reader get involved emotionally with them? Having your main character be a dragon or an extra-terrestrial doesn’t, by itself,  make him interesting. It’s how you build him, the detail and imagination that goes into making him three-dimensional and alive. That’s what makes him interesting.

3. Is there action?

There is a triggering incident, right at the start. People do things, say things, make mistakes. Consequences follow, often quickly and dramatically. People are driven to take action because of inner turmoil or because of goals and ideals that others around them never imagined. They don’t just sit and wallow in their goals and ideals, they get up and act – maybe not wisely, but in a way that triggers a reaction.

Do your stories and anecdotes have these qualities, or are the adorable eyelashes going to droop as your reader or listener falls asleep?

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