Archive for the ‘Telling stories’ Category

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.”

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I love this quote so much that I stole it. I heard it first from Seth Godin. It is one of those powerful phrases that packs so much into a few short, direct words.

Whether you are planning a speech, a sales pitch or an elevator pitch, it’s the story that makes it work. It’s the story that makes the connection. Your ideas are great, supporting facts are good too but it’s the story that pierces the armor and gets your message felt rather than heard.

So it’s important that your story fits seamlessly into the message you are trying to get across. The fit should be perfect so that the audience doesn’t have to do a mental jump between the two. The fit should be so good that they can’t imagine that message without that particular story. If they were to repeat the message to someone else they would have to tell the story too.

Better still, if they found your speech so spell-binding that they had to repeat it to the folks back home they would tell the story first and then, oh yes, remember to tack on the message. The best story of all would carry the message implicitly within it and the speaker would not have to state it separately. (Of course, many of us wouldn’t be able to resist that temptation.)

I have to remind myself often that I don’t have to drive my message home with a baseball bat. All I have to do is frame my story so that it precisely fits my message. If you go through your story or memory file you might not find a story that fits perfectly. You do, however, find stories that ‘kind of’ fit. You can frame these so that they fit exactly.

Framing is like manipulating a lump of dough or clay into the precise shape you require. Your story is like that lump of dough or clay. What you make of it is your creative choice. You can emphasize some details and ignore others. You might have to eliminate some of your favourite details to make your story fit your message better. Do it. Don’t leave those details in if they are going to distract from your message.

Think of your opening as the bait and hook that will not only draw your audience into listening, but also focus their mind to the exact place you want it to be. You pull them into the world of your ideas and reward them with your story.

And when you come to your conclusion you don’t end up with words that basically say, “The moral of this story is…”. You give the audience credit for their intelligence, you assume that they ‘got it’. Make the ending of your story satisfying and conclude with word of encouragement. You’re sending them back out into the world not having heard a lesson but having explored a new idea or coping strategy.

We all need those.

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I’ve been working on a presentation about ways to access memories in a way that make them a strong base for a memorable inspirational speech.

To me there are three useful ways.

1. Fall off a cliff

This is a major negative event that shoved you right off your contented little path. Think sudden dramatic diagnosis, think sudden major loss of a loved one, think a fall into addiction.

Your story shows you bottoming out, then starting the climb back. It might cover your adaptations, strategies that helped, people who helped or gave workable advice, creative ways around possible pitfalls, and most important, the mistakes you made along the way. In the end you climb back to a higher plane than you were on to start with. You have grown.

2. “Mostest” words

OK, I made up the word ‘mostest’. It says what I mean. Any superlative word that you can apply to a life event:

the biggest, the first, the last, the greatest, the best, the worst. And especially the word ‘most’ or the suffix ‘est’ linked to an emotion:

the most scared, the saddest, the most angry, the happiest I ever felt.

These are triggers to generate memories of moments where something dramatic happened in your life that can form the basis of a theme or a story.

3 The 5-second video clip

Think back to people of events in your life and you’ll usually come up with a 5-second video clip. Think of your Grade 12 home room teacher and you’ll get a brief video clip that may be typical or atypical, but it’s just a video clip – maybe she is walking into the room, over to the desk and sitting down. No story, just a mental video clip.

Follow this up with three questions: ‘Why?’ ‘How?’ and ‘What’s next?’ As you ask the ‘why’ question, think like a little kid who can’t stop asking “Why?” Dig deep, especially if you start to feel emotion underlying something that, on the surface, is quite ordinary.

The ‘how?’ question will help you look at it from a different perspective. ‘What’s next?’ will help you find a climax to make your story dynamic.

If you believe that, really, nothing came next, imagine what might have come next. Yes, you say, but it didn’t. I had to make that bit up. Are you sure you made it up? Is your memory really that accurate after 20, 30, 50 years?

Try these three ways of digging around in your memory bank. Dig deep down to bedrock to discover the emotional power of the story. Then you will have a unique and memorable speech to present.

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Suppose someone did something very nasty to you. Let’s say they hit you hard for no reason.

Your body reacts. Your heart rate and blood pressure climb, your stomach muscles clench, your shoulder and neck muscles tense.

These feelings are passed to the brain which assesses the data it is receiving, clumps it together and labels it as an emotion. “I feel so ANGRY about this.’ or perhaps “I feel so HURT by this.” or perhaps “I RESENT  this.” or “I’m so AFRAID.”

The way we feel about this nastiness has been filtered through and interpreted by our attitude to life, our past experiences, our present circumstances and many other factors. So the emotion we end up with varies from person to person even though the hit was the same for everyone.

Furthermore, everyone will invent their own story about it. Think of the person-on-the-street interviews on television.

“Now I’m always going to be afraid to walk down this street.”

“I knew there was something strange about that man as soon as I saw him.”

“I blame the mental health system. People like him should be given treatment. It isn’t his fault.”

“It’s a good job he didn’t hit me because I’d have hit him right back.”

What has this got to do with the story in our speech?  When you search back in your memory bank for a story to illustrate your speech you might find one that feels like a good story but the emotion doesn’t fit the needs of the speech. Can you imagine someone else experiencing the same happening but filtering it through a different emotional lens.

Let’s say your mom caught you with your hand in the cookie jar – it’s a common childhood experience. Let’s say that you yourself felt guilt – your back story being that your family and your church had told you many times that it is wrong to steal.

Someone else, with a different backstory, might have feelings that translate into a different emotion:

  • anger at their mother for coming into the kitchen at that moment
  • superiority because they were actually stealing more expensive donuts but they fooled their mom into thinking it was just plain cookies
  • annoyance at their brother, who must have ratted on them
  • frustration because they were hungry, having missed breakfast

You can tell the same basic story through a different emotional lens. You could tell this story as an anecdote, part of a series of anecdotes illustrating how your relationship with your brother developed.  Maybe you accused him unjustly – he didn’t rat on you – and your frustration changes to regret about misjudging him.

When you tell an anecdote or a story it should fit the theme of your speech exactly but the basic story can stay the same while the feelings and emotions can change. It’s your emotion that gives depth, dimension and power to your story.

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A man I know slightly – I’ve seen him at a couple of conferences and he wears a name tag so I know who he is – spoke to me after a conference session.

“I remember the story you told a couple of years ago,” he said. “You spoke about….”

Wow! Imagine that! Something I said had been remembered across more than 100 weeks.

So I tried to remember what I had done or said that made the impression last. I know I did not point out ‘the moral of the story’. I let listeners figure it out for themselves.

Two things happen when listeners figure it out for themselves. The first is that whatever they figure out for themselves they will remember longer than anything I said.

The second is that they may or may not figure out the message that the speaker intended.  You might think that this is a negative but in truth it is not. They might figure out something that is similar, but not the same.

However, if they have thought it through in their own way the idea will more closely match their usual thought patterns and so it will be, for them, more memorable. Fitting a story idea into one’s own thought patterns makes the person own the idea; they hold on to it and will remember it longer. Once they own the idea they will defend it and share it as their opinion.

They might also come up with a meaning that had never occurred to you – something totally different from the meaning that seems so obvious to you.  To me this is an added bonus. It’s a whole new dimension that I probably had not considered.

I’ve heard speakers becoming annoyed when a listener came up with a different meaning from the one they “should” have picked up. “Why are they so thick-headed? Isn’t it obvious that I meant…?”

If it was that important maybe the speaker should have made it plainer.  I’m just happy to learn that my story had more dimensions than I realized. It makes me think that I could use the same story, perhaps adapted a bit, to put across a new message. I take that as a gift.

Making your message last also involves making your story very vivid.

  • Lots of strong word pictures, full of colour and action.
  • A strong viewpoint that absorbs and reflects the emotion of the moment.
  • Touches of humour
  • Direct dialogue

Try to feel each line of your story as you build it and write each scene with your message in mind. This carries your message past the hearing and into the emotions; it is felt rather than heard. The message is implicit rather than stated. Feeling a story makes it memorable.



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Are You a Hero?

Well, of course you are a hero! Every motivational writer or speaker will tell you so!

But if YOU are the speaker it’s better that you don’t show yourself to be the hero of your own story.

What does that mean, exactly, ‘Don’t be the hero of your own story’?

It means that you don’t show yourself to be stronger, wiser, deeper, faster, more knowledgeable or in any way better than others in your story. If someone saves the day or guides the way, it’s not you.

You are the one who makes a mistake, stumbles, loses the race or the scholarship, spills soup on your shirt or blurts out exactly the wrong thing.

Personally, I’d rather not mention those things. I’d like to forget them and remind people of the times I really shone. But that’s not how communication usually works.  As a rule people listen better when you tell them how you overcame a problem or a difficulty. They identify with you and you can enhance that identification by pointing out commonalities you share.

The exception might be if you have achieved, let’s say, an international award. Then your audience might come to hear how you did that. Your speech would probably mention a poor start, a couple of mistakes along the way and how you corrected them, how other people helped you and your steps towards success.

This speech addresses the audience’s need for the information to help them, not your desire to look like a hero. The message is informational – ‘how you, too, can achieve this’.

Suppose it’s on record that you dashed into a burning house and saved two little children and then went back in to save their cat. This isn’t how to. This forms the basis of an inspirational speech telling how the experience changed you. Perhaps it taught you to value life more, or to be more observant (“I almost didn’t notice the smoke.”) It’s not about heroism, it’s about becoming a better person in some way.

Suppose you managed to help someone through a difficult time. Perhaps they lost their job and you gave them advice that helped them to be less depressed and able to go out to find a new job. If you know quite a lot about job hunting you can find material for an informational speech. People need that kind of information.. They don’t need to know that you, in your wisdom, were the hero of the story. It isn’t a “Me, the wise mentor” story.

Just as you de-emphasize the hero aspect of your story and the wise mentor role you played, you play down any aspect of your life that might set you apart from your audience.  Don’t try to impress them by mentioning that you dine with famous people, your car was made by Bavarian elves or your clothes were purchased in Milan. TMI. It makes it harder to connect with people. It’s not what you’re aiming for.

A true hero shows their worth – they don’t tell it.

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Whatever issue you want to address, whatever point you want to get across to the people in an audience, you first have to get their attention. If you don’t have their attention you are wasting your time.

Attention is a really scarce commodity. You get someone’s attention for a moment, then it’s gone. Your thoughts have to be expressed so persuasively that they crowd out all the other thoughts that are in the minds of your listeners.

You may think your ideas are important but they have to compete with “Will I get that promotion?” “I hope my son’s okay in that new daycare.” “I ought to have gone to the washroom before I sat down.” “Maybe if I get out of here early I can finish that report today.” And on, and on. Thoughts are skittering out of control all over the place and you need to round them up and align them with your theme.

You can talk louder, you can talk faster, you can wear bright or gimmicky clothes, you can dance around the stage like a maniac, you can stun them with PowerPoint. Any of these can work for a few minutes.

Punch Number One

What catches the attention and holds it is the story – a carefully honed, a right-on-target story with vivid characters and conflict that has listeners holding their breath.  When they hold their breath you are holding their attention.

Punch Number Two

Humor in that story. You don’t need a lot of it (although if you have a lot that’s great). You just need to add observations, asides, the unexpected event that brings smiles, grins and perhaps even a burst of laughter. The audience will listen for more, more. You have their attention.

Punch Number Three


Excitement, fear, apprehension, sorrow, relief, love, hate, anger, compassion – there’s a world full of emotions to choose from. What do you, yourself feel as you prepare the story? Sense it for yourself and then deepen it. You can’t pick an emotion at random and slather it on like icing on a cake. The emotion has to be both integral and built-in as part of the story.

And you can’t tell it, you have to feel it and show it. You can’t say “I felt sad when my old dog died”. You have to open up and show yourself pulling over in your little red Toyota and bawling on the side of the highway, or trying to cook supper and having tears fall into the mac and cheese or the omelet. It requires a rather uncomfortable honesty.

As you try to secure for yourself a corner of the attention of the people listening to you, go for this One – Two – Three Punch: The Story, the Humor, the Emotion. They are the trusted tools for getting and holding attention.

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So you’ve written this story for your speech. It fits your theme nicely. It looks fine. So, it’s ready to go, right?

Not so fast. Professional speakers and professional writers know that what you have written is a first draft and it needs editing or polishing. The refinement of the story is the secret of its success.

Editing is not the most fun I ever had, but I do a lot of it. Here are my best tips for a speech story:

  1. Write or word process your story so you can see it as well as hear it in your head.
  2. Remove the passive verbs and replace them with active verbs. A passive verb says ‘This happened to me’; an active verb says ‘I did this’. For example: ‘I was hit by the bus’ should  be ‘I couldn’t jump out of the way fast enough. The bus hit me.’
  3. Try to remove every instance of ‘There is’, ‘There was’. ‘There was a dog sitting in the middle of the street’ becomes ‘A dog sat in the middle of the street’.
  4. Have you used the word ‘looked’ as in ‘She looked surprised.’? You need to be more specific. In what way did she look surprised? Did her mouth drop open? Did her eyes widen? Did she cuss or jump backwards? don’t short-change us in the actual movement and feeling of the moment.
  5. Note the points where you will pause to allow listeners a moment to absorb the emotion of the moment. Look at the words following the pause and make sure they gently pull the listener back into the story.
  6. Find ways to present information in dialog rather than simply telling it.
  7. Look for ways to increase the emotional connection, especially with the main character. The listener should feel sadness for him, fear for him – whatever emotion fits. Use vocabulary or manipulate the scene to increase this connection. The main character might make mistakes. Bring home the feeling, the frustration. We’ve all made mistakes; we all connect.
  8. Use telling detail in your description. If the scene is in a coffee shop, we all know what a coffee shop looks like. Decide what detail will bring this one into focus – the  bulletin board of community events, the napkin folded under a table leg, the barista’s nose ring.
  9. Read your story to a friend and ask questions. What was the point of the story? Which part grabbed you? Why do you think my mistake led to that result? Are you left with any questions? A good friend will reveal the weaknesses and help you come up with a stronger story.
  10. As the structure and detail of your story improves practice it – not as a story you are telling –  but as an experience listeners are hearing for the first time. How can you make their experience richer and more meaningful?

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I’m always interested in listening to other speakers and noticing how they use stories to emphasize the points they want to make.

There’s a lot to be learned from experts but you can learn from everyone – even the newest speakers. Once in a while someone will tell a story that reaches out and grabs you, won’t let you go, sticks in your memory.

As soon as  this story reaches out and grabs you, ask (silently) ‘Why?’ What did the speaker say or do to intensify your focus? It’s hard to analyze when your imagination has been grabbed by the throat but try it as soon as your thoughts are free to roam again.

  • Transition. How did the speaker transition into the story? How did he make that smooth and compelling?
  • Word Choice. What were the words that linked to your own experience and pulled you in? did some words have an emotional pull for you – mother, traffic, baby, friend.  Words like these will take hold of almost everyone in the room.
  • Character. Who is the story about, and what has the speaker said to make you identify with this person. If you were presenting this story to this audience, would you have added anything or changed anything?
  • Tension Did you feel tension as the person in the story faced difficulties? How did the speaker create that tension? You noticed how he started with small difficulties and progressed to bigger, almost impossible ones. He showed you strengths and weaknesses that came into play.
  • Conclusion At the end of the story did you feel that tension relax. What words did the speaker use to make you feel the satisfaction of “Phew! Thank goodness everything turned out all right.”?
  • Story Objective  How did the speaker move on to fold the story into the theme and purpose of his speech? Analyze that transition and see what made it smooth, how the speaker brought your train of thought back to the main track.

If you analyze these points for an inexperienced speaker you will realize how you might have done it better. Great! You’ve studied the point and you’ve learned something. You’ll have that learning to incorporate in your next speeches.

If you’re listening to a very experienced speaker you might find it harder to pick the elements apart and analyze them. At least notice the transitions. How does he get himself smoothly into and out of the story? What elements of the story reinforce the point he is making?

To become a better story teller, listen to other people tell stories.

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“What were you thinking!!?”

The teenager had been to a party and had driven home drunk. He had driven his dad’s car off the road. Luckily none of the four kids inside were badly hurt. Picking him up at the hospital the dad exploded,

What were you thinking!?”

Truth be told the kid had been using adrenaline instead of brain cells. Thinking was just not happening. Now he was struggling, still half drunk, to remember the point at which it all went pear-shaped.

He had intended not to drink (much). He had intended to walk home if he felt he was drunk (even though he was not going to drink). But the feeling of fun and excitement had overtaken him and even the best of thoughts (Maybe just one drink) had not been strong enough to make a difference.

He hadn’t felt drunk, he had felt relaxed. He had just felt happy and on top of the world. He felt perfectly capable of driving home. He had felt, he had not thought…

His dad meanwhile – what was he thinking?

He struggled between worry and relief and anger and self-reproach. His innermost thoughts were, in fact an expression of feelings.

“I should have driven him myself.

Oh, thank God.

I should have taught him better.

Thank God he’s OK

I’m going to give him a piece of my mind when we get home.

He’s never going to drive my car again.

Thank God.

He’ll pay for every cent of the damages.

What if he had killed himself and his friends?

Oh thank God. Thank God he’s okay. Thank God.”

You feel for these two, the teenager and that dad but what were you thinking?

Actually, there is no thinking at all. It’s all emotion.

There’s no reasoning, no careful consideration. Just feelings. That’s where people spend most of the time – in their feelings.

So that’s where you need to go if you’re trying to reach people. If you have a message to get across, don’t worry about what they’re thinking.  Focus on what the audience or your readers are feeling.

Access their feelings of the moment. Make them feel different and deeper emotions. You’ll get your message across more effectively.

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