Posts Tagged ‘experience’

It happened again on Tuesday. The speaker was talking about an interesting experience – this one was a ride in a hot air balloon – and he was fully halfway through his allotted speech time before he actually mentioned getting into the balloon.

The flight was delayed, the flight location was moved and the truck they rode in to the new take-off point looked like this. The balloon was unpacked and inflated. Finally they had a quick balloon ride and they landed. End of speech.

It reminded me of an earlier speech by Toastmaster who had visited a remote indigenous village. It had been a moving, emotional experience for him. He had told us a bit about it ahead of time and we were all eager to hear the details. What had caused him to react so strongly?

We never did find out because all 7 minutes and 30 seconds was taken up getting to the village. The timer started clapping him down just as he described the van parking on the muddy main street.

When you’re speaking about an event, start with the event. We don’t care what you had for breakfast or that your girlfriend was late. If it’s a balloon ride we want to get as close as we can to the balloon ride.

The speech starts as the balloon inflates or as it rises into the air. Then you have about six minutes to bring the meat of the event to life and share the experience itself before you land and wrap up.

Similarly, the indigenous village experience starts with the village street. You spend no speech time getting there.

The basic problem is a lack of planning.  Start by making a list of what you feel is important to share about your experience. Use the five senses – what you saw, heard, tasted, felt, smelled. Think of the sequence of events. List your reactions to different points in the narrative. Were there any interesting or humorous or significant events that you want to be sure to include?

Then go through those lists and select what is most important to share with the group. Arrange your facts and details in a logical sequence and add opening and closing statements.

Now you’ve got a well planned speech that helps your audience understand what you’re trying to convey. Give them all the excitement, the fun the significance of your experience – not seven and a half minutes of getting there.

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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.

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