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.

The Plastic Speech

Have you ever heard someone say “It was a good enough speech, but it was too plastic.”

In my part of the world that’s what we call a speech that has all the right ingredients but somehow doesn’t quite hit home the way a great speech would. Maybe you call it something different in your part of the world, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

We’re told that a good speech for a contest should be both inspirational and motivational. It should have humour, emotion, a story, a strong opening and conclusion. Indeed it should have all those things. If it is strong in all those areas it will likely get you to the contest at the Division or District level within Toastmasters.

Maybe as you wrote it you checked off all the items on the back of the judging sheet. Yep, I got this, and this and this. Check!

But then there’s that vague criterion “effect on the audience”. If you’ve done several speeches you’ll know that different audiences react in different ways. Some laugh like crazy at lines you didn’t think were funny. Others sit straight-faced through your carefully crafted humour – the part that had other audiences rolling in the aisles. Who knows what effect it will have on this particular audience?

True, a savvy speaker has learned skills of getting his message, his humour and emotion across to an audience in ways that a newer speaker has not yet imagined. But no amount of savvy rescues a plastic speech.

A plastic speech is one that is done for effect rather than for the honest desire to convey a specific message. The speaker has started out with the one thought, “What will win the contest?” Every choice he or she makes supports that one thought.

– The message? The one likeliest to win the contest.

– The emotion? To the extent and depth that is that likeliest to win the contest.

– The call to action? The one likeliest to win the contest.

The overall result? A plastic speech. The whole thing is based on a false premise. Rather than basing speech construction on the idea “How can I best convey this important message to my audience?” it has been based on “How can I win the contest?”

The audience might not be able to explain the difference but they can feel it, they can sense it. At the higher levels of competition, the more experienced judges know an honestly felt speech when they hear it just as an experienced car buyer knows the difference between leather seats and almost-as-good-as-leather seats made of plastic. An experienced judge can tell the difference between a message from the heart and a plastic speech that checks off all the requirements.

By all means develop your message-from-the-heart with all the skill and knowledge and experience you can muster. Remember that it has to beat out that clever plastic speech. But base the foundation of this speech, like all your other speeches, on your true message not on your desire for a trophy.

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.

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.

Make Them Listen!

Have you ever given a speech on a topic you thought  was very important?

Maybe you wanted to increase interest in a cause that’s important to you. Maybe you did a lot of research and you want to give your audiences the benefit of this.

It doesn’t matter what you want. Each member of the audience has an agenda of their own. You will only cut through their personal thoughts and reach the holy grail of their full attention if you grab their interest. The important topic, the research, your perception of your speech value count for little until each person chooses to give you their best attention.

When I started speaking I regarded my message as the meat of my speech. With some reluctance I wrapped it in a few stories and bright little details, like putting a bit of gift wrap and a bow on a birthday gift. I thought the speech, like the gift, was what mattered.

What really matters is that each member of the audience listens with their best attention. The most important message in the world is of no value if it floats from your mouth, through the ether and out the back door with no-one giving it their intelligent attention.

Thumping the podium only carries your message so far. Standing there like a teacher quoting passages from the latest guru doesn’t cut through the static. Referring to all your research is only boring (other people don’t want to have to suffer for your research).

Two things get people listening:

  • appealing to their experiences and concerns
  • stories in which they quickly identify with the main character (usually you because many of the best speech stories are personal)

Some speakers start their speech with that common “Have you ever…?” question. Having asked this they go on their merry way assuming the answer validates their speech and their topic. Too often the question is designed to elicit a common answer from everyone (“Have you ever been late for work?” “Have you ever taken the wrong exit from the freeway?”)

Almost everyone will answer ‘yes’ but the question and its answer have little deep resonance for the audience. After the ‘yes’ they fall back to their semi-comatose state.

The question should resonate (“Have you ever had to deny a child something they really wanted because you could not afford it?”) You run the risk that not everyone in your audience will answer ‘yes’.  On the other hand, the question gets everyone thinking – and thinking in the direction you want their thoughts to go.

Once you get into your speech you make a small number of points and illustrate them with the best stories you can find. Not any old stories, or the one that slayed them back at the pub. Finding your perfect stories and building perfect foci into your stories is where your research should concentrate.

Your story work should be invisible. No-one but you will know how much time you took polishing the words and body language to make your message reach down into the subconscious.

Your task is to make your speech the ideal vehicle to carry your message. Success is when people don’t remember your speech but they do carry your message away. They remember it for a long time and they tell others. What more could you ask?


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?”

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.


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.

Speeches? Why?

When we start out in Toastmasters we write speeches so that we can learn to be better speakers. Each project teaches one of the skills of speaking and each speech we present is a learning experience for us.

Then what?

For those ten speeches it is all about the speaker. We learn to research, to get to the point etc. In the process we hope to entertain or educate our audience but in truth, it’s all about our own learning. It’s all about me the speaker.

Now, it’s a given that learning is a life-long process and we will never know all there is to know about speaking. But the steep leaning curve is behind us and we now know the basics. So why do we keep going?

1. We want to reveal a situation or a need. “Let me tell you about maternal deaths in sub-Saharan Africa”

2. We want to teach. I can teach you how best to use stories in a speech.

3. We want to motivate. By applying this simple mantra you can live a more fulfilling life.

4. We want to inspire. “Let me tell you how I overcame my problems and you can too!”

5. We want to entertain or amuse the audience.

Did you notice how each of these started with “We want…”?

If the audience has paid money to hear your ideas on the topic you can assume that what they want is somewhat in line with what you want to provide. If not, if it’s your Toastmaster club members giving you 5 – 7 (or more) minutes of their time, shouldn’t you be giving thought to what they want?

Suppose your topic is raising chihuahuas or growing miniature roses. How many of your audience came to learn about dogs or flowers? Not many. They came hoping to have an interesting or entertaining experience. How much time are you giving to the entertaining experience aspect, and how much to cramming more and more facts into the speech?

Are you giving them what they are hoping for? Are you speaking for the audience or are you speaking for yourself?

Are you writing the speech for you (I want to…) or for your audience?


In Silence

I heard a speech given by Simon Sinek, best-selling author of “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”.

He was making a point about sacrifice within an organization. Too often, he said, the many are expected to sacrifice for the benefit of the one leader when in fact the one leader should sacrifice for the benefit of the many.

He repeated “Many are expected to sacrifice for one leader”. And then he silently mouthed the words “That’s backwards.” as he made a hand gesture indicating ‘backwards’.

It was highly effective. Have you ever tried that? Just silently mouthing your brief, important  point while making the relevant hand gesture?

When each member of the audience fills in the silence for themselves they remember it far more clearly than if the point had been made orally by the speaker.

Try it sometime.