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  • Holly Blum/The Word Whisperer

Psst…The Secret’s In The Storytelling

Think about how many speeches you’ve listened to in life. Whether personal or professional in nature, how many of them really hit the mark? Was your attention captured, or did you find your mind wandering? How many times did you laugh and how many times did you cringe? Did you ever silently (but fervently) wish the speaker would just stop talking and sit down?

From my own experiences, I know that speeches often fall flat. If not, I wouldn’t have as many clients as I do! One thing I’ve noticed is that the most compelling speeches tend to place the biggest emphasis on storytelling. The secret is simple: at the heart of any great speech is a great story. But, spinning a good story in speech form isn’t always easy. Before you craft your next speech, here are some tips to keep in mind:

Frame out your story. It may sound obvious, but all stories (and speeches) must have a beginning, middle, and an end. Think about how many times you’ve been at a wedding and heard a father-of-the-bride drone on and on without ever getting to a point. It’s your job as the speechgiver to take your audience on a journey; it’s not the audience’s job to find the thread that ties your speech together. And remember that when you frame out your story please do so inclusively so that your audience can identify with what you are saying.

Have a solid opening. Deciding how you are going to open your speech is critical. Pick something that grabs attention from the get-go. How many times have your heard a best man start his speech by saying something like, “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m John’s brother, Mike.” As the guest, I’ve already hit my snooze button. Instead, start telling your story. Set the scene. Make the audience want to hear more.

Think about the illustrations. The middle of your speech presents an opportunity for you to tell your story in a more in-depth way. With special occasion speeches in particular, this is a great time to share funny and heartwarming memories that bring the guest of honor’s character to life. Think of how you would want to illustrate your story with words. I often find that building a catalog of metaphors will give your words the color and detail you need to captivate your audience.

Feelings over facts. When you’re sharing a story, it’s not about presenting the facts of what happened. It’s about expressing how you felt about what happened. The best stories have layers; they’re not one-dimensional. You can intensify the story and tap into people’s emotions with vivid language. For example, I had a client who wanted to toast her mother on her 70th birthday. We came up with this type of language: “I’ll never forget how my mother packed me a lunch for school every day growing up. Even though she always packed my favorite foods (Twinkies were a must), it was the little notes that she included each day that really stuck with me all these years. I can still see the notes in her signature handwriting, reminding me that no matter what was happening in my day, I was loved.” After the speech, the client relayed to me how moved family and friends were to hear this touching story. And remember, the stories you share in a speech can be about small stuff, but try to connect them to big emotions.

End well. Once you have a strong beginning and middle, the challenge is to end the speech on a high note. In many ways, the ending is the most important part as this is the message that will linger with the audience long after your speech is over. Oftentimes, I suggest starting with the takeaway or ending to make sure you focus on delivering the message that is most important to you.

Tell, don’t read. If you want your audience to listen, tell your story, don’t read it. This allows you to make a connection without having your eyes on a piece of paper the whole time. That’s not to say you cannot have your speech written out in front of you, but you should feel comfortable enough with the material to use the speech as more of a guide. To do so requires practice, so don’t skimp on the rehearsal time. You’ll know when you’re ready when it feels like you’re having a polished conversation instead of reading from a script.

Everyone has a story to tell, but isn’t not always easy to make your story come to life, particularly when you’re in front of an audience. So much of storytelling and speechgiving is connecting to other people and helping them see what you see. The eloquent Maya Angelou said it best: “They may forget what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” Please remember this when it’s time for you to give your next speech.

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