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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!

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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.


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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.



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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.

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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?

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It’s tempting for me to believe that readers of this blog spend whole days wondering, “Why did she call it ‘The Story Solver’?”

Possibly not, although I have been asked a few times why. The story is this:

Back a few years I was looking for a project to undertake for my High Performance Leadership (HPL). I needed only the HPL completion at that point to become a Distinguished Toastmaster. I decided that a blog on the topic of putting stories into speeches would be something I could do and it would have continuing usefulness to Toastmasters.

So I assembled an HPL team and started in on the blog.

First thing I needed was a title. I knew that the word ‘story’ needed to be in there. But then what? I cast around for some time, talked to my HPL team and slowly came to the idea that stories were what made speeches interesting and memorable. They solved the problem of dull and boring speeches. And that’s where Story Solver came from.

This was before the idea of stories being the answer to every communication need had become popular. Even so it was not unique. Someone had already grabbed the web site ‘storysolver..com’ so I had to add “the”.

In the years since i started the blog, story telling has become ubiquitous. Almost everyone, Toastmaster or not, has realized that adding stories into a speech helps to interest the audience and to increase the retention of the speech ideas. I’ve been asked to speak on the topic to a variety of audiences and made friends in different countries through the blog. It has brought me much happiness.

The Story Solver has been read by tens of thousands of people – not huge by web standards that only are impressed by millions, but still well ahead of anything I ever expected. The Story Solver became a book that has sold steadily over the years. Again, I’ve found it very satisfying.

People have also asked me, “Why the flowers?”

It’s a personal thing. I find the clip art type photos of happy, successful executives just too common and cheesy. I like flowers better. The photo I’m using at present is one I took in a neighbour’s garden on a day when I thought their daisies looked perfect.

I intend to continue writing thestorysolver.com as I listen to a variety of speeches – both Toastmaster and other speeches – and ideas occur to me.

Do you have ideas to share with me? Please let me know.

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How I go about evaluating a speech

I start with a clean sheet of paper and I write reminders to myself on the top:

Smile, use third person, start with “It is my honour/privilege to evaluate (name’s) speech (speech title).

I write sub-heads down the left hand side:

I feel it starts my evaluation off logically if I start by quoting the speakers first words, with a compliment about their effectiveness in relation to the purpose and the topic of the speech. If the conclusion connected really well, mention that and point out the link

Structure – usually only takes a quick mention but it’s important to include it.

Content – what the speech was about. Did the speaker include the three important elements – humour, emotion, stories/anecdotes? Be specific about these and how they supported the speech as a whole. Were the transitions smooth?

Presentation – how did the speaker show confidence, passion, connect with the audience? Was the body language appropriate to the speaker and the topic? Select specific details to support your point.

The tip should be phrased in a positive way. “To make this speech even better, I might suggest…” and follow this up with a concrete suggestion. More than one tip is OK but it’s best if they are related

Best. Follow your tip with the one thing you liked best in this speech, say it with enthusiasm.

HAVE AN OBVIOUS SUMMATION. Brief is OK but this is the climax of your evaluation speech, so prepare it carefully. Do not forget this or you will lose marks.

This is just the basic outline – of course there are many other things you might mention, depending on the speech and, of course, on the limited time available. You won’t go far wrong if you cover these bases.

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Pretty Distractions

The purpose of a speech is to give the audience something – a laugh or a smile, hope, information or inspiration. So all parts of your speech should support this purpose.

If your purpose is humour, you find your funniest stories and build them so they are even funnier than they were to start with. If your purpose is to inspire people to, say, work harder, then any humour should relate to that. If it doesn’t serve the purpose, no matter how funny it is you leave it out.

It comes under the old mantra for writers – ‘Never fall in love with your words’. If you see that it doesn’t quite fit, but it’s SO good that you leave it in, then you have given your listeners a distraction.

It’s like wanting your son to marry this worthwhile and intelligent girl, then introducing him to someone who is cute but a total airhead.

The same thing goes for a lot of introductory material that seems important but isn’t really relevant. By all means, when you first write your story put all the background information in – but be ready to cut all that doesn’t support your speech purpose.

No matter how important it seems to you. No matter how integral it was to YOUR experience. What matters is what it will mean to the audience and how integral it is to their understanding of this one message.

Suppose your theme is the importance of family support. Your build your story around the way your family helped you through a serious bout of depression.  Perhaps it took months for you to get a correct diagnosis and this was frustrating. A lot of detail about going from doctor to doctor is not relevant here. It might be worth a brief mention if your family were helping you through it. But only the family support part is relevant, not the inadequacies of Doctor A, Doctor B and Doctor C.

Beware of sub-stories that are pretty in themselves, but not adding to the power of your speech. Let’s say your sister visited you every day in hospital. It’s tempting to go off on a tangent that says that she came even though she was having a problem with her husband who she suspected of having an affair with a young women in his office because he was working late all the time and going off on weekends when he had promised to mow the lawn and… yada yada.

Just let the audience know she had her own problems – they will get it without the minutia.

When you are tempted to add detail or background give each piece the purpose test. Ask “Just how does this support my purpose?”

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Have Fun!

When I was very new at presenting speeches – and very terrified – fun was he last thing on my mind. Survival was everything. Could I present it without falling flat on my face? Could I keep breathing so I wouldn’t pass out? Would I fall over my feet? Would I forget all that I had practiced?

Then young Aaron, who was one of our best speakers, saw my terror and said “Forget all that. Just have fun up there.”

Fun? Was he kidding? When you’re fighting for your life, fun is away off in never-never land.

But that was a few years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. Now that I’m more comfortable ‘up there’ I can sometimes have fun.


Stop thinking about you and start thinking about them – the audience. What do they want of you?

And your thought process goes – “How should I know what they want? – I’ve promised a speech and I don’t know what to talk about. – I could talk about coaching hockey because I know a lot about that, or making angel food cake, which will it be? – I know, I’ll talk about selecting a dress for prom night. Good, that’s that decision made. ”

Did you even stop to ask “Which of my possible topics would the audience prefer?” or “Which topic would make the most interesting presentation?”

Early in your speech design ask “How can I put fun into this topic?” And the more serious your topic the greater the need for fun. If you’re talking about funeral planning your presentation had better have some really, really funny observations thrown in between the serious points.

Once in a while you may be speaking as an expert in your field. You will be expected to come across with useful information but that still doesn’t mean that you can’t give the audience some fun between times. Humour and stories are what will make your important points stick and be remembered.

Once in a while you may be delivering a motivational or inspirational message. The stories and fun highlight the more serious part of your message, they create contrast between the lightness of the humour and the important weight of the message.

But if you are working on your Competent Communicator manual put some fun into your speech just to give you and the audience a break. Try to give the audience a laugh. What if some people don’t ‘get it’? Forget them. Focus on those who did get it. See that lady in the second row? She’s still smiling, sitting forward waiting for the next opportunity to laugh. Give her that next laugh. It feels wonderful – not just to her but to you too.

When you find somebody who is really ‘into’ your speech you’ve found the sweet spot as a speaker. Giving fun to someone else creates the fun for you.

Try it. Give fun to get fun.

Have fun with your speaking.


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Speech Respect

I went to my favourite coffee shop this morning and had an English muffin and coffee. It was good! But the oddest thing happened.

After I was finished the English muffin a different wait person came up to me with another English muffin and the same jam choice I always make.

“Would you like another English muffin?” she asked. “The kitchen made two of them.”

Well, um, no, thank you. I had eaten as much English muffin as I wanted.

It’s rather the same with speeches. We get hooked on one topic forgetting that the audience may have heard from you all they need to hear about that one topic. A little was good. More is not necessarily better.

Remember that the audience is giving you a generous piece of their time. Respect that. Vary the topic and the pace. Make their time spent listening to you worthwhile.

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