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Posts Tagged ‘message’

Keep it Simple

Have you ever been to an event and noticed someone who was totally overdressed?

It’s usually a woman, of course. There she is in her large earrings, a seven-strand necklace, a dress of some hit-you-in-the-eye color, with frills, Dame Edna glasses, an oversized sequinned purse and shoes with bows.

Did you think “Wow! What an attractive woman!”

Or did you write her off as an exhibitionist, a nut case and definitely someone to avoid.

OK, maybe I exaggerated, just slightly, but think about people who present themselves in this way. With the exception of Dame Edna herself, they don’t do it to look ridiculous. They do it because they believe it makes them stand out in a crowd, that it will make people take notice of them. Well, they’re right about that, but for the wrong reason.

Does it make them appear attractive? Does it draw other people to want to know them better?

If they wear everything, as my dad would say except the kitchen sink, does it appeal to others or does it shut them down?

Now think of your speeches. If you want to share a message that is important to you, do you throw in everything you can think of to appeal to the emotions, intellect and senses of everyone in the audience?

Do you take time to make sure you haven’t missed a single relevant fact, or left one single heartstring unpulled?

Hmm.. could your speech be just a tad overdressed? Dame Edna or a classic black cocktail dress?

I know, it’s hard when you believe something strongly to omit a single thing that might draw others to your cause or belief. By all means include facts to keep the minds involved and certainly some emotion. But keep the essential message clear and simple. Make sure you haven’t thrown in so much extra ‘stuff’ that your strong message is lost.

Throwing in all of everything obfuscates, and you wouldn’t want to do that. Overload makes eyes in the audience glaze over. Clear and simple carries a focused message and draws the kind of attention that you’re hoping for.

Clear and simple has few points, but important ones. It is vividly illustrated with words and stories chosen to have a precise effect – to drive your one main message home.

It gives you the opportunity to attract not just attention, but respect – and an audience who are eager to know more.

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“What were you thinking!!?”

The teenager had been to a party and had driven home drunk. He had driven his dad’s car off the road. Luckily none of the four kids inside were badly hurt. Picking him up at the hospital the dad exploded,

What were you thinking!?”

Truth be told the kid had been using adrenaline instead of brain cells. Thinking was just not happening. Now he was struggling, still half drunk, to remember the point at which it all went pear-shaped.

He had intended not to drink (much). He had intended to walk home if he felt he was drunk (even though he was not going to drink). But the feeling of fun and excitement had overtaken him and even the best of thoughts (Maybe just one drink) had not been strong enough to make a difference.

He hadn’t felt drunk, he had felt relaxed. He had just felt happy and on top of the world. He felt perfectly capable of driving home. He had felt, he had not thought…

His dad meanwhile – what was he thinking?

He struggled between worry and relief and anger and self-reproach. His innermost thoughts were, in fact an expression of feelings.

“I should have driven him myself.

Oh, thank God.

I should have taught him better.

Thank God he’s OK

I’m going to give him a piece of my mind when we get home.

He’s never going to drive my car again.

Thank God.

He’ll pay for every cent of the damages.

What if he had killed himself and his friends?

Oh thank God. Thank God he’s okay. Thank God.”

You feel for these two, the teenager and that dad but what were you thinking?

Actually, there is no thinking at all. It’s all emotion.

There’s no reasoning, no careful consideration. Just feelings. That’s where people spend most of the time – in their feelings.

So that’s where you need to go if you’re trying to reach people. If you have a message to get across, don’t worry about what they’re thinking.  Focus on what the audience or your readers are feeling.

Access their feelings of the moment. Make them feel different and deeper emotions. You’ll get your message across more effectively.

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Sticking Power

Years ago we used to use the phrase ‘Throw it at the wall and see what sticks”. It meant to come up with all the ideas you could think of, discuss them and see which ideas had the greatest potential for being accepted and followed.

Sometimes I think that in our Toastmaster speeches and stories we follow that same course of action. It would sound something like this “I’ll throw in all I know about this topic and several suggestions for action and maybe my listeners will remember one or two and do something.” The theory being that, with luck, everyone will find something in there to like and to follow up on. That out of these half dozen ideas and suggestions each listener will pick one.

It doesn’t work like that. YOU, the speaker or storyteller, are the person who gets to pick one… ONE clear facet of the topic, ONE clear meaning, ONE follow up action. If you are knowledgeable about the topic, or you’ve done your research and you still can’t choose one aspect how do you expect your listener to pick one  – remember he or she knows less than you do about it.

Many of the old fairy tales, myths and legends have more than one interpretation. But if you choose a story or anecdote to illustrate a point then that point is the one single focus of your story. Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm folded in several meanings but that doesn’t mean you can too. You can’t play tennis like Venus Williams or spar like Muhammed Ali either. Keep it simple.

Simple, focused, direct is the approach that will make your story  and your message stick in the mind of the listener. More meanings and facets are not the answer, they are the clutter. They interrupt the impact of your message and the drama of your story.

Clarity and focus will make your message stick.

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The closer your reader feels to the story, the more deeply they will listen – and pick up the message behind it – the message you’re trying to get across. Suppose your message is “You should listen carefully to what other people are telling you.”

The ‘You should’ is going to put people off right away. No-one wants to do that – it sounds like no fun at all.

So you are going to dress it up with a story.

Your story might start, “This woman was phoning another woman and telling her about a problem she was having with her teenage daughter”. It’s better than starting off ‘You should listen’ but it still isn’t going to pull in many readers.

But what about,”Last night my friend Maria phoned, all upset about her daughter Lisa. Lisa is 15 now and starting to date ….”

The story has been made more immediate by being set in recent time. It could have been this morning or this afternoon, or right after supper, it doesn’t matter. It is a clearly identified, recent time.

It is more immediate because it happened to you. (Now if you’re a woman readers will accept that story. If you are a techie guy and everyone knows it, then maybe it had better be your friend Josh and the problem is caused by his elderly mother, Doris.)

The main character, Maria (or Josh) has been given a name. She is not some vague woman that no-one cares about, she is Maria. And you have introduced her as your friend. Because you care about her, your reader will care, just a little, too. You have your reader hooked.

You can progress from there to flesh out your story. If it is just an example (‘I didn’t listen to her and I should have. Negative consequences ensued’ ) then the fleshing out can be minimal. You get to the point and move on. Just make sure to speak of Maria as you would if she truly were your friend, and not in the casual, remote way you would refer to ‘some woman’.

If, however, this needs to be a longer story to carry a deeper meaning keep the immediacy going by adding description and action that will resonate with your readership or audience. She might be

‘a single mom with spiky hair and body piercings’

‘organist at the local church with a handicapped husband and a big debt load’

‘Vice President of Marketing who drives a Lexus and wouldn’t move from the house without her Blackberry’.

And give your readers a glimpse into your relationship:

‘She was the one who drove me home the time I got sick at the party’

‘She not only got the best marks in school, she got the best looking dates. I was so jealous of her’

‘I’ve only known her a month or so, but if I see her at the bus stop I give her a ride to work’.

These are the details that bring your story to life and give it credibility. If your characters and their situations are strong enough you can slip a message in without anyone noticing.

The jam completely conceals the pill.

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The best leaders have the best stories. In most cases their stories are so good that people don’t even know they are stories. They just know that whatever the leader suggests they will happily do.

A leader does not lead by offering facts – that’s the job of the manager. The manager is the one who talks about stats, budgets, targets, quotas. When the VP of Finance or Production gets up there in front of his Power Point presentation you can bet his tailor-made suit that he’s got a ton of hard facts he’s going to download on his prisoners (oops, sorry, I meant ‘on his listeners’).

They are hard facts because they are precise and non-fuzzy; they are also hard to get your head around, hard to listen to and hard to swallow. Those banks of number, pie chart after graph – your mind wanders off to the latest problem of your teenager and whether there will still be construction on your usual route hoeme.

After lunch, how many of the numbers can you remember? A few that relate to you and your department will stick. The rest will bounce off you like pebbles off a wall. Do you buy into them? Well, it looks like you’re going to have to.

The leader, meanwhile, might throw in a few facts to back up what he is saying but his story is all about what this strong and dedicated team is going to be able to achieve. He knows that facts won’t get buy-in but telling stories will ensure an audience who listen and who understand at an emotional level what he’s getting at.

What stories are those? Well, there’s the one about his grandfather who started the company. He has told similar stories before but he never repeats them, just finds another with another inspirational message and shares it with all his friends in the audience. Or there is the story of how he came to take over the company. How difficult things were then and how his friends, right here in the audience, helped to bring them around. He has faced difficulties before – two or three stories would fit here – but always come to a successful conclusion. He didn’t do this alone, no sir, he had friends who supported him. and he knows that he has supporters here who will carry this company forward.

You’ve heard this kind of message before, or at least some neat little sound bite from it. Few hard facts, no Power Point. His aim is to connect with the audience. He does this partly by his dress, probably an open- necked shirt and casual pants. He does it by his vocabulary – the vocabulary of his audience, not of the lawyer or accountant. He does it with a relaxed and confident manner. But most of all he does it with his stories.

His stories have warmth. They are personal. The audience have grandfathers who seemed to be just like his. They have had job decisions to make, just like he did. They have faced difficulties too. There is a connection and a bonding. They will buy into his message at an emotional level. They will probably go back to their office, shop floor or home and say, “Guess what Paul Leader said today. He said…”

The leaders message – the pill under all this jam – is accepted and taken in almost without hesitation. And not only has this message been accepted at an emotional level, but he has prepared the way and built credibility for his next message.

This is the power that stories have to build and maintain leaders. Good stories need research, creativity and practice. But they are worth it.

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