Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

As I have written these posts and gathered them into book form I have taken care not to research from the Toastmaster manuals. I read them a few years ago when I was working on the projects, but I have not re-read them for the Story Solver articles.

At this point, with both projects very close to completion, I have re-read the Toastmasters Advanced Communication and Leadership Series “Storytelling” manual. I’ll share my thoughts on each of the projects. These are in addition to what you can read in the manual and are in no way intended to refocus your approach to the projects.

This is one of my favorite projects because it empowers the speaker to spend time building a speech at an emotional level rather than at a mental or intellectual level. There might be information in the speech, but it is background, not front and center. Theoretically you could appeal to any emotion, including jealousy, anger, grief.  In fact, getting your audience riled up in anger or jealousy or treating them to every grief-stricken moment of the day your old dog died might not be a good idea.

So we all understand that the ’emotion’ we appeal to in this speech is empathy. We want people to feel the poignancy of the moment rather than hard core emotion.  It might be the story of a grave miscarriage of justice, or the loss of a sibling. Either of these are difficult stories to tell without wallowing in anger or grief. Do you really want to burden your audience with these in addition to the burdens they already carry?

So the trick is to have your listeners feel some of the emotion without dumping all over them. It’s a fine line to walk and the keys to it are understatement and an oblique approach. If your story is about the loss of a sibling most listeners don’t need to be told the details of your pain and grief. They get it. You could even interject humor by saying that the Kleenex factory made a big profit that year. The contrast between that note of humor and the deep emotion is very effective in creating empathy.

The oblique approach works by using one unusual detail rather than hard evidence of emotion. “I was so sure I would win that settlement that I had planned dinner for six of my best friends.  It was going to be East coast lobster and French champagne.  Instead I had a Subway sandwich and a Coke. Alone.”

Allowing people to draw their own conclusions helps them to react to your story more personally. It’s the revealing details  that make them feel your story rather than just hearing it, it’s not the amount of emotion you throw at them. These details are shown, not told.  Don’t tell your listeners, “She felt embarrassed” but “She felt her cheeks flush and she carefully studied the button on her sleeve rather than look her mother in the eyes.”

Remember, too, that this is a story. It needs strong characters, a plot, action and a problem to be solved. The main character might be you or someone else. The tale might be fiction or fact. The personal characteristics and the problem to be solved need to be focused on getting the most emotionally poignant mileage out of the situation, the people and how they deal with the issues they face.

Last words: Avoid emotional cliches. “A tear glistened in his eye”,  “Her chin trembled” , “She leapt to her feet in anger”.  C’mon, you’re a story teller. You can do better than that.

Read Full Post »

Empathy is the holy grail that is sought by storytellers. Most of us try to achieve that sense of empathy in the first sentence or two.  How about:

“When I was five years old I was afraid of thunder…”


“When I was fifteen years old I was accepted into Harvard…”

We can all remember back to our childhood being afraid of something, so we understand at a deep level what the speaker is saying. The speaker makes a connection with us right away. Not many of us can remember being accepted into Harvard at any age, never mind at fifteen, so there is no sense of connection. We might wonder if the speaker is being self-indulgent and we mentally back off a bit until he comes down to a level that we are comfortable with and understand.

A personal story relies on empathy for its success but it can be a balancing act. Nostalgia is good and a little sentimentality can show the softer part of your nature but try not to overdo it.  You don’t want your audience wallowing in mush. You can tell stories about a difficult point in your life, showing the problems clearly. But don’t whine and wallow in victim-hood. Share a little of yourself with the audience but don’t use your story as a psychotherapists couch, with every detail revealed.

Empathy often comes from the telling detail. If you were afraid of thunder tell how you hid under the blankets or under the bed or in the closet. Maybe your older brother laughed at your fear. These are the details that bring your audience closer to you. They feel for you and they are open to hearing what you have to say next.

Once you have that empathy it will carry your message much more effectively. Whether it is inspirational or motivational your message now has a clearer path into the mind of each member of the audience.  Inattention or preconceived negative ideas are minimized.

No wonder achieving empathy is the holy grail of storytellers and speakers.

Read Full Post »