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Posts Tagged ‘story’

So you’ve written this story for your speech. It fits your theme nicely. It looks fine. So, it’s ready to go, right?

Not so fast. Professional speakers and professional writers know that what you have written is a first draft and it needs editing or polishing. The refinement of the story is the secret of its success.

Editing is not the most fun I ever had, but I do a lot of it. Here are my best tips for a speech story:

  1. Write or word process your story so you can see it as well as hear it in your head.
  2. Remove the passive verbs and replace them with active verbs. A passive verb says ‘This happened to me’; an active verb says ‘I did this’. For example: ‘I was hit by the bus’ should  be ‘I couldn’t jump out of the way fast enough. The bus hit me.’
  3. Try to remove every instance of ‘There is’, ‘There was’. ‘There was a dog sitting in the middle of the street’ becomes ‘A dog sat in the middle of the street’.
  4. Have you used the word ‘looked’ as in ‘She looked surprised.’? You need to be more specific. In what way did she look surprised? Did her mouth drop open? Did her eyes widen? Did she cuss or jump backwards? don’t short-change us in the actual movement and feeling of the moment.
  5. Note the points where you will pause to allow listeners a moment to absorb the emotion of the moment. Look at the words following the pause and make sure they gently pull the listener back into the story.
  6. Find ways to present information in dialog rather than simply telling it.
  7. Look for ways to increase the emotional connection, especially with the main character. The listener should feel sadness for him, fear for him – whatever emotion fits. Use vocabulary or manipulate the scene to increase this connection. The main character might make mistakes. Bring home the feeling, the frustration. We’ve all made mistakes; we all connect.
  8. Use telling detail in your description. If the scene is in a coffee shop, we all know what a coffee shop looks like. Decide what detail will bring this one into focus – the  bulletin board of community events, the napkin folded under a table leg, the barista’s nose ring.
  9. Read your story to a friend and ask questions. What was the point of the story? Which part grabbed you? Why do you think my mistake led to that result? Are you left with any questions? A good friend will reveal the weaknesses and help you come up with a stronger story.
  10. As the structure and detail of your story improves practice it – not as a story you are telling –  but as an experience listeners are hearing for the first time. How can you make their experience richer and more meaningful?

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I’m always interested in listening to other speakers and noticing how they use stories to emphasize the points they want to make.

There’s a lot to be learned from experts but you can learn from everyone – even the newest speakers. Once in a while someone will tell a story that reaches out and grabs you, won’t let you go, sticks in your memory.

As soon as  this story reaches out and grabs you, ask (silently) ‘Why?’ What did the speaker say or do to intensify your focus? It’s hard to analyze when your imagination has been grabbed by the throat but try it as soon as your thoughts are free to roam again.

  • Transition. How did the speaker transition into the story? How did he make that smooth and compelling?
  • Word Choice. What were the words that linked to your own experience and pulled you in? did some words have an emotional pull for you – mother, traffic, baby, friend.  Words like these will take hold of almost everyone in the room.
  • Character. Who is the story about, and what has the speaker said to make you identify with this person. If you were presenting this story to this audience, would you have added anything or changed anything?
  • Tension Did you feel tension as the person in the story faced difficulties? How did the speaker create that tension? You noticed how he started with small difficulties and progressed to bigger, almost impossible ones. He showed you strengths and weaknesses that came into play.
  • Conclusion At the end of the story did you feel that tension relax. What words did the speaker use to make you feel the satisfaction of “Phew! Thank goodness everything turned out all right.”?
  • Story Objective  How did the speaker move on to fold the story into the theme and purpose of his speech? Analyze that transition and see what made it smooth, how the speaker brought your train of thought back to the main track.

If you analyze these points for an inexperienced speaker you will realize how you might have done it better. Great! You’ve studied the point and you’ve learned something. You’ll have that learning to incorporate in your next speeches.

If you’re listening to a very experienced speaker you might find it harder to pick the elements apart and analyze them. At least notice the transitions. How does he get himself smoothly into and out of the story? What elements of the story reinforce the point he is making?

To become a better story teller, listen to other people tell stories.

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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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To be a leader, you need followers, right?

To pull in followers you need to connect with people and draw them towards you and your goal.

The stories you tell in your speeches and in your conversations are your primary tool for doing that. Here’s a three-point plan to develop stories for that one purpose – to connect with others who may support you or help you.

  • Prepare. Who are the targets of your stories? List them in categories – workers, society or church members, parents. Then write down what you think they want to hear from you on this occasion. Are they looking for information, encouragement, motivation, reassurance? Develop a general idea of what needs to be said and the tone you will use as you say it.
  • Select. Once you have your outline select some stories that fit your message. If possible list more than you need, then choose the best. But keep the others in mind – as you are speaking you might find the perfect place for one to illustrate a point you are trying to clarify.
  • Focus.Run through your chosen stories, silently or aloud, See how well each one fits the point it is to illustrate. Work to improve that fit. Add tiny details to help listeners to identify with the story. Change something to make it better fit your purpose. (If it works better for this audience with a young woman as the focal point, rather than an older woman, make that change.) Add a touch of humor, preferably directed at yourself. Put in some emotion, reflect the emotions of the audience right now.

Adding stories connects you in a personal way. They reduce the distance between the leader and those being led. They make the leader more human – no longer is he simply  ‘An Important Person’, he has made himself multi-dimensional and even perhaps slightly vulnerable. He has shared stories that show him as human rather that impersonal. He is one of them rather than a suit from the big city.

Of course, you might be the leader of a small group where everyone knows you and a great deal about you. Then your stories will illustrate examples of strengths and accomplishments that they might not be aware of. The Prepare, Select, Focus system works equally well here.

The point of connecting as a leader is to have others share your vision and your goals, and to have them understand the why and the how. Stories make that connection easier and more comfortable. You are offering easy steps on a well-lit pathway rather than a leap of faith into the darkness.

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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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Every once in a while an ordinary, simple task or event turns into what has been called a ‘comedy of errors’. It’s probably  annoying at the time, but it’s excellent humorous speech material.

This is one story about one event, not the string of pearls which has a series of linked anecdotes. But while it is one story you can certainly build into it events that happened on other similar occasions. If your story is about a camping trip to the mountains two years ago you can include a happening from a different camping trip to a different place at a different time. You just write it in as if it happened on this specific trip.

Your story can start off as if this is going to be an ordinary event but it should escalate very quickly to the humor. Don’t wait too long for that first laugh.  Your ‘ordinary’ camping trip should degenerate into its humorous chaos if not immediately then step by step but promptly.

No-one in your audience should be thinking “When do we start to laugh?”

Make the people funny. Have contrasting types – you a heavy-duty outdoorsman ready to chop firewood, your wife trying to decide which swimsuit and what shade of make up to bring along. Give at least one person unrealistic expectations – as you revel in the solitude of the wilderness they are asking about Internet access.

Exaggerate the disasters. If you ran out of gas on the freeway coming home, move that to running out of gas while you’re still in the wilderness. Have it be pouring with rain. Have everyone so fed up of each other that they are arguing nastily BUT arguing wittily. The dialogue should be developed with care for maximum humor.

What’s that? You didn’t run out of gas at all? Then you had better have had at least one other ‘disaster’. It’s hard to build a humorous speech if everything flows smoothly and everyone gets along happily.

Not getting along is another source of humor. Being crammed in a tent in pouring rain, besieged by mosquitoes does not bring out the sweetest natures.  Spend time on the attitudes and arguments that develop. Have them build using your insight into human nature and what will make people irritable, what they say when they are getting to the end of their patience, and how they say it.

Build your speech to one final, concluding laugh. It’s your story climax, the funniest of the funny moments. Stand for a moment to enjoy the laughter. your story has been a success.

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I needed a new car. I had been to several local dealerships where I was – a woman alone – prime target. I had been welcomed, ignored, served coffee, and instructed (“Don’t lease, buy”).

Some smirked and sent their spottiest youth out to practice on me. Another wanted me to buy without the hassle of the test drive.

Then I went to the dealership where an older man popped a mint in his mouth and tried to show me cars, although they must all have been new on the lot as he knew nothing about them. As I swooned from the aroma of mint – and the alcohol that lay behind –  it I noticed a familiar face.

Their business manager, moved from another dealership, an honest, straightforward young man who had always been courteous and reliable.

Phew! What a relief! Finally I had what I had been looking for – a sense of trust. He wasn’t a salesman but I knew I could trust him to be on my side. He took time to chat about his new job and this dealership. The mint man disappeared and was replaced by someone who knew his product and was ready to listen to me. I was ready to buy. Trust does that.

In any interaction, whether you’re selling cars or promoting your vision for the company the first step is to establish trust. Trust is difficult to establish rationally. You can start with some facts about your accomplishments in your previous leadership roles – and they had better be fully honest because if you’re caught in an exaggeration the tenuous trust link is immediately broken.

But what difference did these accomplishments make. Where’s the story? If you are a volunteer, did your volunteer role result in feeding 500 more people than last year? Perhaps including Pepe and his family who were fleeing domestic abuse. What has happened to little Pepe and his family since then? Maybe he’s on a soccer team now for the first time.

The story is the emotional proof. It’s the “show me don’t tell me”. The PowerPoint slide of Pepe playing soccer penetrates far deeper into the imagination than the PowerPoint graph showing 500 more people than last year.

Telling stories and anecdotes about yourself and your previous, accomplishments shows openness. If you can show a hint of humanity and humility it’s even better. (“I’m great at sales, but as a record keeper I’m not so hot. The year I sold 3 million was also the year I nearly got fired for my sloppy reports. That’s why I trust Frank here to do all our record keeping.”)

Three birds with one stone. You’ve been open about your weakness, you’ve shown you know how to correct mistakes and you’ve given Frank a pat on the back and a sign of your trust in him.

As you establish yourself as a leader trust is your strongest ally. Build it by listing the attributes you’d like to portray (goal oriented, visionary, approachable, …) and by showing these not just with facts – the tip of the iceberg – but with a story to give the in-depth picture.

Make it vivid, with humor and with a one to one connection. A strong sincere story is money in the trust bank.

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