Adding a narrative style to my speeches

Growing up in Nova Scotia, the land where tall tales are built into the culture, I learned to appreciate a good story as well as to tell a good story. As a child, I wrote, and the praise I received encouraged me to continue to write. Now as an adult, I continue to write in blogs, in 150 character bursts on social media, and in any of the notebooks that litter my purse. A narrative runs constantly in my head. People who write will know this experience. It comes of always looking for words that describe our lives. It is flatly in our nature.

So flip to speeches, which is something I do a fair amount of in my life. Speeches, as everyone knows, are factual, compelling, a bit formulaic, and – if you are following the same formula I was taught to use – has a decent call to action at the end. If you have some numbers, you should use those, too. When there is a big screen, a good speech giver will include those numbers in a clean data visual, like with a good pie chart or maybe a 3D bar graph. If you have taken the advanced speech-writing class, you know that numbers work best when you can use a good verbal visual. For example, rather than saying, “I come from a town of 10,000 people,” you could say, “I grew up in a town so small, if every single man, woman, and child came to the Roger’s Arena, they would only fill the bottom section.” That’s good, right? You can see the population of where I grew up as a lovely visual. My job here is done, well, as long as I add the call to action, like, “vote for me,” or “call now.” Or whatever.

For me, this flip between an entertaining tall tale and a speech that, let’s face it, is the audio equivalent to watching paint dry, has been a problem. I keep wanting – hungering – for my speeches to improve to a place where people want to hear them. Being technically good at presenting information in a three-minute time limit is all very well and fine, but if the only reason people are listening is because they are obligated to stay in their seats, then there’s a painful disconnect between how to improve and the motivation to do so.

(Also, forgot to mention, be sure to use passive voice. That’s how people know you’re an expert.)

For the last few years, I’ve been stuck. I’m a public speaking class drop out. While it was good for learning the basics, my desire to move beyond the basics wasn’t happening in my classes. It was a good three years, but, well, if I wasn’t growing, it was time to move on.

And then in November of last year, I went to BC Fed. And BC Fed brought in a story teller. And that storyteller unlocked the tiny little door between the narrative I love to use and speeches. Ivan Coyote, a professional storyteller, captivated me. I shushed all the people around me who kept talking. I was listening. And I was inspired. Ivan used imagery that everyone could relate to. A Brown Betty tea pot. A folded dishtowel. These simple images were woven into the story they told.

Let me just pause for a moment here. Ever watch Youtube videos? I do. LOTS of them. And I am learning to make Youtube videos. Writing a three-minute script is a whole lesson in being concise. Yes, I could do longer videos – most people do – but I have settled comfortably around the three-minute mark, give or take, because I ran a little test on my own Youtube attention span. I played random videos from whatever Youtube threw at me as a suggestion and I watched until my attention wandered. The moment my attention wandered, I hit pause on the video.

Like clockwork, my own personal attention span started to wander around the 2-minute mark on most videos. A few made it to 5 minutes. Unless the video was truly compelling, I rarely made it to the 6- or 7-minute mark. So my lesson was clear: less is more in Youtube land, particularly while I am still in the embryonic stage of learning how to make a video that anyone plays to the end. Youtube is truly the litmus test of how well a speech-giver presents. Unlike conferences and meetings where audiences will sit out of polite obligation, on Youtube, boring gets axed the moment boring happens.

Back to Ivan Coyote. I’m not clear on how long they spoke. I just know it wasn’t long enough. I was captivated. Then to my delight, my own union brought Ivan in as a speaker for one of our conferences. Again – it was a simple narrative punctuated with images. And the light turned on.

A few weeks later, I was invited to speak at the International Day of Mourning Ceremony in Victoria. I wrote, rewrote, re-edited, and refined my speech. It began as a standard speech – with lots of numbers and statistics – because that’s good, right? I made sure to talk about how my union’s members are impacted. And then I hit the delete key and started again.

This time, inspired by the storyteller’s gift for using things we have seen, smelled, and felt in our lives, I shifted to tell a story about plastic hospital bags. Sure enough, this tweak – and not a small one either – held people’s attention. They listened to my full four-minute speech. (Which is here.) Some people openly wiped tears from their face. I read my story and then thought, “This was the piece I was missing.”

I’m not sure who decided that a decent speech was one that was tightly wound into a tiny box, but I would like to just say – it doesn’t have to be that way. Information can be conveyed with so much more interest. And by being interesting, people can be interested. I wish to learn more of this way.

I have no interest in being a professional storyteller when I grow up. But I would like to continue to develop this skill so I can make sure that when I stand in front of a room, people do more than listen politely as a captive audience is obligated to do. My storytelling skills have been dormant since I left Nova Scotia, so I have some learnin’ to do.

But I’m going to finish with this – regardless of how far I will go with my skills, it is most certainly a relief to have a focus so I can take my presentation skills to the next level.

I have to add a special thank you to Ivan Coyote whose special gift of storytelling has allowed me to look at the power of narrative differently. If your organization has an opportunity to bring them in to speak, I strongly recommend it.