Public Speaking 108: Don’t tell a story

John got up to speak. As a successful CEO in the Silicon Valley, he was invited to deliver the evening’s keynote speech, to young entrepreneurs, on handling the ups and downs in business and life. He did a great job of telling how he built his business and how his firm was acquired by a larger company, in the process making him a legend and a millionaire. When it came to his personal life, he pointed to his wife of twenty years who was sitting by the podium. And proceeded to talk about how his wife’s brush with cancer really rocked the family and that it was a low point in their lives. They both had gone through some really tough times.

From the way he described it, it was clear that the cancer had taken an emotional toll on the family. Except that no one in the audience was moved. No one felt the weight of the situation as John recalled the dark time he and his family went through. The typical silence that usually descends upon a room when such a tragic moment is recalled did not happen this time.

Something did not seem right. A heavy moment like that did not evoke the imagery, emotion or reaction that is expected out of an incident like a brush with cancer. The pieces did not fit.

Here is what happened.

As John was explaining his wife’s run in with the cancer he used a tone that did not create the necessary imagery in the audience’s mind. It was delivered in a matter-of-fact monotone with no emotion attached to it. What compounded the situation was that John had a smile on his face throughout the time he recalled the illness and the treatment they had to go through.

It was apparent that they were torn apart and suffered physical and emotional stress throughout the entire time. But because the delivery did not match the narration, the story landed like any other – without any impact. Another story. Another event.

John could have easily used that story to demonstrate the power of their love, how they stood by each other during the tough time and how not to give up even in the midst of adversity.

I call it the Audio-Video problem. The Audio has to match the Video. The narration has to match the delivery. The telling has to match the showing. John’s had narration. He got the audio covered. It was like the video was simply turned off.

At a minimum, here are three techniques to use to enhance the delivery of any speech or story:

  1. Gestural Variety: Use your entire body to speak. Not just your mouth (duh!). Use your hands, facial expression, legs (move around) to make your point.
  2. Vocal Variety: Use tone, pitch, volume and pace to make the delivery interesting for the audience. A speech given in a monotonous tone, sounds more like a drone than a speech. Audience will soon be fighting their sleep instead of sitting up to listen to your speech.
  3. Pause: Probably the single most important tool there is in speaking. Effective use of pausing could help demonstrate the point powerfully and enhance the speech or story like nothing else can.

Bottomline, don’t tell your story. LIVE your story. When you live your story, you transport yourself into the moment in time when the story actually happened. And that helps recall the imagery and paints the picture for the audience. You then deliver the story in technicolor as opposed to delivering in black-and-white. As a speaker, you owe it to the audience to transport them to places and situations where and when the story happened. To take them with you on a journey where they can see the life you lived, the ecosystem that you existed in or had to fight through.

For a story to have it’s impact, you need to LIVE THE STORY. NOT TELL THE STORY.

Fortunately for John’s wife, the cancer responded to treatment and she went on to live a healthy life and was smiling as her husband was recalling the incident. Good for them!

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