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As you stand up to speak to a room full of people you realize that these are all individual people, all absorbed in their own thoughts. This is not a cohesive audience waiting to hang on your every word. Their attention is partly on you but partly still on:

  • “My headache’s getting worse.”
  • “I’d like to finish talking to the woman next to me.”
  • “Did I remember to feed the cat before I left home?”
  • “It’s past time to put my mother into long-term care but she’ll hate it. What should I do?”

Your first job as speaker is to override these thoughts and the fastest way is with a story. To gather all that wandering attention you start with the magic word “Imagine.”

You follow this with a story from your past experience or about some positive event that might happen in their future.

You make sure that this is a short story because there will be those in the audience who want you to get to the point. Later in your speech, when they have started to see how this all fits together around your theme you can tell longer stories, but not yet.

Your first ‘imagine’ story is very carefully chosen to set up your topic and your perspective. Its purpose is to gather all those wandering minds and align them in the direction you have chosen. It is a story with emotional impact, and for this you need to have built-in visual and auditory impact.

You might ask the audience to imagine being six years old again, and this is very powerful because it evokes deep personal memories. The problem is that there are many different six-year old’s experiences. You can’t assume that everyone came from a warm and loving two-parent family.

You might ask the audience to imagine a scene from your life, one that might be very different from anything they have experienced. Maybe you show yourself as a young man getting on a plane for the first time to travel to a strange country where you are going to make a new life for yourself (great intro to a speech on goal setting). You need to share feelings and uncertainties, show the crowd in the airport, the hugeness of the plane, cringe before the roar of the engines.

Later in your speech, as you present more stories to illustrate the steps in your theme, you can select one element from that first story to be a thread linking all the stories in the speech.

Especially take that element from the first story to use in your conclusion.

Grabbing the imagination of everyone in your audience is Job One for a speaker. They are adults, so you can’t open with ‘Once upon  time…” But you open that door in their mind when you say that one word

“Imagine.”

Later in your speech

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Expectations

My grandson hates his school picture. Of course he hates them; he’s a teenager. It would be a big surprise if he came home and said “Wow! Look at this great picture of me. Doesn’t it make me look good? Thank you for buying the set of pictures for me.”

Our expectations of people have to be realistic, otherwise we set ourselves up for disappointment. When you stand up to speak the audience has certain expectations of you. These may be grounded in previous experience – they know your style and how interesting you are likely to be.

If you are to grow as a speaker you should try to at least achieve and maybe exceed these expectations. You have worked on structure so the speech hangs together better and flows better.You’ve beefed up the content and you are putting ore life into your presentation.

And you have added stronger stories:

  • you have found new stories
  • you have added detail or depth to previous stories
  • you have found a new perspective for a story – you tell it from a different viewpoint that uncovers new meaning
  • you dig deeper into he story to discover a new layer of understanding

The audience, or some members of it, may not have heard you speak before. They may not know your reputation, or level as a speaker. For these people you are establishing your benchmark as a speaker. They will establish their expectations of you based on this.

So you always have to do better as a speaker to exceed that benchmark. This is how you grow.

There are people who will say “I don’t care what other people think – I only have to meet my own expectations of myself.”

But what if you are too easy on yourself, or too hard on yourself, or you have somehow managed to rationalize that fact that everyone yawns through your speeches?

Sensitivity to the expectations of the audience gives you additional data from which you can gauge your progress as a speaker. As you tell your new – or newly-adapted – story you can tell from the expressions in front of you whether it worked.

Are you getting smiles, Aha expressions, nods? Or is there more than one ‘I don’t get it’ look?

If you have trouble speaking in English a Toastmaster audience will usually support you as you gradually improve your fluency. They expect that each time you will speak a little more clearly than the time before. Their reward for this is the unique stories you can tell them from a life experience very different from their own.

Stories are easier to express, easier to get into and understand than more abstract ideas. Your stories increase the expectation of you as a more and more fluent speaker. Well-told stories also increase the perception of you as an interesting and increasingly accomplished speaker.

Grow the expectations of you with stronger stories

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Nail it Down

As you write your speech you may be aware that you have one sneaky enemy – one you’d like to avoid.

Its name is vagueness – aka generalization or lack of precision. How many times in speeches have you heard “In society today”…, “many of you”…,”most people”…,”in today’s world…”?

Who or what exactly do you mean?

When you speak of society today do you mean the business community in your city? Do you mean everyone in the world? Do you mean all managers in the oil industry? Do you mean socialites who turn out for every glamorous fundraiser? Decide who you mean and nail it down.for yourself and for your audience.

The same enemy – vagueness-  penetrates your theme too. “I’ll throw together something about…” “It’s more or less about…” Nail down your theme and the basic points you most want to get across.

The next step is is where your stories can help you. Choose them carefully, build them to support and illustrate the focus you want, and they will clarify your purpose and your thinking.

The main character epitomizes the person or group you are addressing. The conflict – the difficulties he encounters – are easily identifiable to those people you have decided to focus on.

He can try unsuccessfully, be deluded or misled but your story will lead him to  a solution or conclusion that places him right where you (and now the audience also) want him to be.  That solution is the point of your speech and your message.

And as you draw that main character, nail him down precisely too. you don’t have to go into detail to do this. Probably no-one cares that he is six foot two with brown wavy hair and three children. What will make people identify with him? That he can never find a parking spot? That he wants a promotion and a raise so badly that he can hardly think of anything else? That he’s worried about his kid’s illness or whether his last report was detailed enough?

You’re not describing a person here, you’re creating a connection with the audience. You select details that will pull them in, that will make them identify with the character. That connection will help them identify with your story also, and with your message and with you.

That connection is what carefully chosen precision will build for  you. You will no longer be whatsizname from head office, or “one of our speakers”.  You will be remembered and your message will be remembered too.

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Humor in a Serious Speech

We’re not talking stand up comedy here; we’re talking connecting more fully with your audience.

No matter how serious your topic your message will be heard more clearly and understood more deeply if you occasionally lighten the moment with humor.

Think of memorial services for someone who recently died. The moment couldn’t be more serious, but people share stories, usually quite funny stories, about the person whose life they are celebrating. They mention one of his traits and illustrate it with a story that makes people laugh. They feel closer and feel that they understand the person better. The tension is relieved.

However serious your speech:

  • “This company is going to merge with that company”,
  • “I want you all to understand the plight of women in the third world.”

– there is still space for slipping in a bit of humor. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Think of it as like salt on a meal – it’s a very small percentage of the whole, but it makes the difference between blah  and tasty or interesting.

Take a moment to poke fun at yourself “You should have seen me trying to cook on an open fire in Zambia….” Or make some unusual comparisons, “Merging these two companies is rather like marrying a giraffe and a crocodile”

If you’re using Powerpoint insert the occasional cartoon, just to keep your audience awake and paying attention. (Think of the for Dummies books. They start each new chapter with a cartoon. It works very successfully for them, no matter how serious their subject.)

Humor does not have to be of the ‘three men went into a bar’ variety. In fact, unless that is your trademark as a speaker you might do well to leave that alone.

Humor doesn’t have to be about telling jokes. But if you want to tell a joke remember that it has two parts – the set up and the punch line. Practice doing both parts well, and really sell that punch line.

When you plan a speech on a serious topic – one that is full of importance – think of it as a meal, very nutritious, full of protein. A large, perhaps rather heavy meal. How can you make it digestible? With salt and pepper? With sauces? With spices? Presenting it on the plate attractively? Offering smaller pieces?

Carry this approach across to your speech. all that good solid information needs to be presented attractively and lightened with your own entertaining view of it. Your own wit and humor, your self-deprecating take on events are as important as your information.

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Let’s assume you’ve never made a speech before but you’ve been asked to make a short presentation, or give a talk or toast the bride.

“Holy …. Where do I start?”

You start by answering “What is my point?

Your point may be to honor the bride (but be funny as you do it) or to encourage church attenders to take a step forward in faith, or to explain how you have built a successful home business while raising twin babies. This is your speech objective. State it clearly – maybe even write it down.

Now think of three sub-points related to it. Often people go about this by asking themselves,”If I was  listening to this speech, what would I want to hear?” Arrange these points in a logical order.

Now think of the best anecdote or story for each of the three points. If you can think of funny ones, or stories with an emotional kick, so much the better.

That’s the basis of your speech.

Introduce it, perhaps with a question of the audience, “Have you ever wondered…”

Bring it to a close by repeating the three points and adding a phrase of encouragement.

This gives you strong speech structure along with stories that will connect you with your audience. As recipes for success go, you can’t beat this.

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When you are going to give a speech do you write it out first?

I’ve tried writing the speech and not writing it, just coming up with the basic idea and a few points to cover.

Some people believe that not writing a speech allows  them to be more spontaneous, more ‘in the moment’ when they present it. This may be true.

But I wonder if what is gained in spontaneity is lost in thoroughly covering all that could be said on the subject, and in saying it the best possible way.

You might miss something of importance; you might present ideas weakly, so they are not understood fully.

And your stories – did you choose the best ones to illustrate your points, did you extract every last ounce of juice from them?

Perhaps you don’t need to write out your speech in order to do these, but you do need to spend mulling time on them. I know people who do this in the car on the way to work, or vegged out in front of the television, not really watching, or at their kids football game.

Or you could just sit down in front of your computer, or with pen and paper.

If you truly wing it you risk coming up with a bland speech that has no real structure to hold it together and with illustrations that are only vaguely connected to the topic.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m a good speaker. I know I can get by.”

‘Getting by’ really doesn’t cut it in front of an audience that is expecting your best and maybe even paying for your best.

If you’re a Toastmaster you didn’t learn much, except that you can get away with less than your best. If you’d done more work on it you might have learned more.

If you’re a paid speaker you gave your event planner a reason not to invite you back next time. Do you know how many hopeful, wannabe speakers there are in the world, just waiting for a chance like the one you just blew?

Speech preparation  – and that includes story preparation – counts.

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The club’s Table Topics contest was over and someone asked me how they could have done better.

My answer: Put a story or anecdote into your speech to brighten it up and keep the audience listening.

Blank look. “But where do I find anecdotes?”

It was a learning moment for me. Some people see anecdotes everywhere; others never notice them. They just don’t see the story. They don’t see that there is the potential for story if only they poked around a bit and supplied some imagination

It’s like some people have an ear for music; others can’t help singing flat. Some people know immediately which color will look attractive on them and others go out in a mixture of orange and purple.

Some people are sensitive to the story, or even the potential for story, while for others it’s just another boring day.

I think it was Gretchen O’Donnell who said “Some people go for a driver’s license and all they get is a driver’s license. Others come away with a driver’s license and an anecdote.”

So are those with a tin ear for story doomed forever? I think you can start to exercise that sensitivity as if it were a muscle. Practice looking for story. Set a goal. ‘Today I will find and record at least one anecdote.’

Where will you find it? Ask questions. Listen (even overhear odd snippets of conversation and build on what might be the story behind those words). Observe behavior – movement, dress, reactions, the way people relate to each other.

Become sensitive to speech patterns, especially if they don’t quite fit the situation – someone asks angrily for a cup of coffee, someone is very upset when there are no bananas in the produce section. If you can discover the reason, great. If not, wonder what could be the story.

Watch relationships and interactions – mom and child, boyfriend/girlfriend, customer/sales clerk. Learn to feel when it’s pretty routine or when words or movements are a bit ‘off’.  Watch for a clue to the story behind this.

Ask questions, or make politely questioning observations . One day I saw a woman wearing a brightly colored knitted hat – not what most shoppers in the mall were wearing. I stopped and admired it and she told me a delightful story about her grandmother’s knitting. Bingo! Not only did I enjoy a pleasant chat with a stranger but I came away with an anecdote.

When you find anecdotes put them into your anecdote bank in a notebook or computer. When you get plenty, sort them in whatever way makes sense to you. Take time to build a few into longer stories (I can describe – from imagination – the  hat lady’s grandma and her house, her arthritic hands and her crotchety husband.)

Your anecdote bank is your secure investment in brighter speeches of all kinds.

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The story in your speech is more than just words.

Especially in your humorous speeches, allow your body, your voice and your movement around the stage to carry the meaning. With the words you tell the story; with the body you drive home all the implications that make your meaning deeper and funnier.

One speech I heard recently brought this home to me. The speaker’s theme was the frugality of her old country parents – how she hated it as a teenager and how she appreciates it now she is mature.

She opened with a scene of herself as a teenage girl washing her dad’s car. Along came the cool guy from school. She exhibited lots of teenage girl/teenage boy body language. She tossed him a rag so he could help her – only to find the rag was an old pair of her dad’s underwear. Major teenage embarrassment, acted out on stage. Hilarious.

What followed was dialog with parents quoting old sayings like “A penny saved is a penny earned” and her doing the teenage huffy thing with rolling eyes and shrugged shoulders.

Rather than explaining their frugal habits she made the dialog do the work and punctuated it with teenage superiority – the swing of the hips, the turned away shoulders, mouthing “As if…”

She varied it with the exaggerated sigh, the hands on hips, the head shaking. Consistently she acted the turning away, to drive that point home.

This changes to show her maturing, marrying and finding it necessary to be frugal herself. Now she is the one with the adages, trying to teach the value of saving. She is exaggerating the teaching posture and her exasperation at someone who is not listening.

In more modern terms she says ‘Reduce, re-use, recycle’ and mimes it. The lesson is there to be learned but her humorous take on the turnaround in her attitude gives it a different twist.

The story is basically simple and direct but presented with body language to give it spice as we identify with the character and her changes.

Look at how your speeches can be enhanced if you let yourself go and put your body into it.

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Speech Pie

“We’re having pie tonight.”

What’s that supposed to mean? Is it beef pot pie, apple pie, banana cream pie?

‘Pie’ means nothing unless you know what the filling is. Is it one of those cheap frozen beef pies with two tiny pieces of meat that might possibly be beef? Or is it one of mom’s special apple pies with caramel topping and cream?

Speeches are similar – the filling is the important part, and the filling in speeches is the stories. Do you give your audience cheap frozen stories or fresh apple, caramel and cream stories?

It has nothing to do with the type of pie – beef or apple – and nothing to do with the speech being motivational or informational. It has to do with high quality ingredients, carefully prepared.

Did you select a story that fits the theme perfectly? Did you take a sharp knife and pare away all the parts that don’t fit or are irrelevant and distracting? Did you take the important elements of the story and arrange them artistically and sequentially?

Did you give your audience small, tasty bites of message, not indigestible chunks?

As you consider your audience do you think their mouths are set for a goodly helping of beef or a more delicate slice of lemon meringue? Does your story need to be powerful, dynamic and forceful to be the speech the audience came to hear? Or will they be more delighted with subtle, or funny, or touching?

Stories need to fit the speech which in turn fits the audience. Yes, you can change it up and transition from power to poignant to funny. But you do it with careful consideration  – you don’t throw the beef in with the apple and then call the result nutritious

Your stories are what gives your speech its flavor and the decision about flavor is made very early in your preparations. You don’t decide to make a tangy dessert pie and then go out and buy beef and carrots. So you don’t decide on a poignant speech and then put in a story about teenagers having a punch up.

Survey your stories and anecdotes. How do they contribute to the overall flavor and objectives of your speech? Do they add to the exact flavor you want to create? What spices will you add? Is the result rich and flavorful or thin and cheap?

Stories are the important taste test by which your speech will be remembered (or not). Prepare a gourmet meal.

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You’ve selected the theme of your presentation, you’ve decided on the major points and ordered them sequentially. Your objective is clear and your logic is as impeccable as you can make it.

Now it’s time for the fairy dust.

Switch to the other side of your brain, the non-sequential, non-orderly side, and look for the stories and anecdotes, examples, metaphors and words that will bring this presentation to life.

The basis of the speech is the beef. It’s important. But you can buy beef at McDonald’s or at a Michelin 5 Star restaurant. Which do you want your speech to be? Plastic tray and paper cup or white linen tablecloth and fine china?

It’s all about the way your ideas are prepared and presented. If you don’t care about your audience you might not put much time into it. If you’d like to have your opinion respected and your ideas valued in the organization then work on the fairy dust.

Here is the basic formula for fairy dust:

Vivid words. Simple, direct vivid words built into examples and stories. Your thesaurus should be right there and well-thumbed.

Selection of detail. You don’t need a lot of detail but it should be sharply observed and true.

Understanding of what your audience wants and how you could make your message fit that. Have you asked the questions to give you that understanding?

An exact fit. Examples, anecdotes and stories that are an exact fit for the points you are making for the audience.

A carefully crafted ‘you’. Personal stories are often effective but beware of a whole series of stories that show you as the hero, the good guy, the rescuer. A little humility, a story that shows you perhaps making a human mistake, will bring you in to focus with honesty and integrity.

Quantity. Lots of examples, little anecdotes, humor. “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” works for adults too.

A sense of fun. If you are getting some pleasure (aside from being terrified) from presenting this, then the audience will too. If you can convey pleasure and interest – rather than boredom or fear – the audience will sense that.

The fairy dust what takes basic speech competence and moves it up-market. It takes the message from ‘It was fine’ to memorable. It’s what gets you invited back to the podium another time.

Fairy dust is the hidden, easily forgotten details that have nothing – and everything – to do with your basic message.

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