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Posts Tagged ‘feeling’

I was part of a humorous speech contest last week and I was all ready to write a blog about what constitutes a winning speech. The contest I attended had a clear winner – a woman who looked back on a couple of incidents from her life. She turned a humorous eye on them and made them very funny for the audience. Technically her speech was good, but not brilliant. It just made people laugh. A lot.

It was, after all, meant to be a humorous speech. It achieved its objective.

I was all ready to blog that the key to a humorous speech is the personal story, one you yourself found funny. And indeed, that can be powerful.

But, big but. Yesterday I attended another humorous speech contest. One of the contestants told stories about the funny things her pets had done. It fell flat.

Now I love animal stories. My own pets have kept me smiling and laughing through many a difficult time. I’m a sucker for animal stories. So what made this speech fall flat, to me and (apparently) to the judges?

The first woman FELT her story. When she told about her joy, as a teenager buying her first skimpy hot-pink bathing suit, you could feel the thrill of the moment for her. But you also felt the undertone of ‘somehow it is going to embarrass her terribly’. Throughout the speech, her examples of her swanning around feeling so ‘with it’ and cool in this hot-pink skimpy suit, you laugh with her at her naive pleasure but you are holding the thought of what might be coming.

The second contestant told her anecdotes with very little feeling. She could have been reading a grocery list. The dog did this, and yes, it was quite amusing. She got smiles and along the way, a couple of small laughs. The cat did that. Another few smiles. Another dog did another funny thing. Wrap up, exit stage right.

Both speeches were personal stories, but no matter how much I like animal stories it was hard to have a really big laugh at the second one.

The speaker lacked two essential ingredients. The first was feeling. There was no sense of personal delight or even real involvement in the moment. To be funny the speaker has to FEEL the humor they are portraying. They can’t just say it, they have to feel it.

The second lack was the feeling (there’s that word again) that this story is going somewhere. Somewhere ahead is a great big laugh; the audience is waiting for it. Without it the speech falls flat. Even if the speech is a series of anecdotes they need to lead to a climax, an anecdote that tops the lot. An emotionally satisfying climax – preferably a big one.

Putting these two elements into your humorous speech will bring rewards in the form of more and bigger laughs from your audience. Even if you don’t win the contest, the knowledge that you have made people laugh – made them forget the problems of their day for a moment – is a unique and hugely satisfying reward.

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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.



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When I choose a program to watch on TV I have certain expectations. If I select a documentary I expect information, if I choose a drama I expect suspense and if I choose a sitcom I’m hoping to be entertained and to laugh.

Often, though, the documentary will include stories. If the information is about drought in sub- Saharan Africa they might show a small boy and his mother struggling to make crops grow in dried-out earth. You can see their protruding bones and feel their helplessness and the bewilderment and pain of a hungry child. The information about the results of a lack of rainfall has been driven home in a simple story that appeals to the emotions and to the humanity in each of us.

Our emotions cover such a wide range – from pleasure ( including humour and joy) to fear, including suspense, from jealousy and hate to love and tenderness. And we would have to include pity, horror, excitement and many more.

If you are working on a story, speech or anecdote, whether you want to inspire and motivate or inform make sure the reader or listener feels what you have to say. Build some suspense into the story, give the reader or a listener a taste of sadness or fear but also give them the relief of joy or humour.

Test yourself: Go through your story marking the places where you have appealed to feelings, and name the emotion. If you have not touched the feelings of the reader at least once, you have not fully engaged them.

Emotional appeal gives your story the richness of texture and dimension that makes it memorable.

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