The Table topic question was “Tell us about a time when you were enchanted.”

The chosen speaker, new to the club, stood for a while in silence then said “I’ve never been enchanted.”

Of course we encouraged her and made suggestions but she could not be moved. She had never been enchanted. She sat down.

How sad is that? Now, maybe some people get enchanted more easily than others. Me, I get enchanted by sunset over the ocean, by a kitten chasing its shadow, by a dog’s paw prints in dewy grass, by a spider working at his web.

There might not be speeches in those things, but how many human interactions do we see and ignore when we could be enchanted by them and build a speech around them? I was waiting in line in the coffee shop when someone found they were 50 cents short of the amount they needed. Immediately two people stepped forward offering to make up the shortage.

It was only 50 cents, for heaven’s sake, not worth noticing.

Or did it warm your heart , enchant you even, by demonstrating the generosity in the world? In other words, could there be a speech in it?

After a while as a Toastmaster your eyes can see quite ordinary things and translate them into illustrations of much larger issues. You might see two boys struggling to make a fort from old pieces of wood, or big brother teaching little brother how to bait his line for fishing. You could build a whole speech about teamwork by watching the fort come into existence. From big brother, little brother you could look at teaching styles, at family values, at the importance of encouragement, motivation, sharing.

It all depends on how you see it. There’s always the option to see nothing at all. Or you might simply note “Those boys are going to get their hands dirty.”

Creative seeing might look for the story behind the activity. Why do the boys think they need a fort? Make up the story. Maybe one of the lads says “Let’s build it here. My dad will never find us here.” And you set your mind to wondering ‘What is the story with that boy and his dad?’

How sad to only ever see ordinary, boring, flat, same-old every day. You don’t have to be enchanted every five minutes (not even every five weeks). But the more you open your mind to speech ideas, to story ideas, to what is interesting or intriguing around you the more interesting, intriguing – and even enchanting – you will find life.

As a  speaker you will become more interesting, intriguing (and enchanting). It’s a goal for most of us.




Ever had to speak in front of a small audience?

This can happen in Toastmasters, especially in the summer time when people are on holiday. But still, those of us who consider ourselves speakers put time and effort into preparing a speech. Then we stand up in front of six or eight people.

Often they are the same faces – the regulars, not a new or unfamiliar face in the bunch. Sometimes they scatter themselves around the available space. Sometimes the acoustics are such that your voice echoes slightly, and this adds to your discomfort. It can be discouraging.

You ask yourself “Why did I bother? Why did I put all this time and effort into a speech for these few people?”

There are those who would say that if there was anyone who was meant to hear your message they will be there. That could be true. Certainly, if anyone in that small group  learns or gains a new perspective from what you presented, then it’s time well spent.

Usually I say that you, the speaker, should consider the audience and forget about yourself. In this instance, though, it looks to me like the opposite. This is the time for you to really shine as a speaker. It’s easy enough to be full of energy and motivation in front of a good-sized group.  It’s not so easy in front of a handful of regulars. Do it anyway.

This is the time to reach down and dredge up every drop of energy and enthusiasm you possess. This is the time to deliver as if you had 200 avid supporters in front of you. This is the time you grow as a speaker, because if you can face this group and be enthusiastic, you can deliver a strong speech anywhere. This is tough. This is where you ‘pay your dues’.

This is also where you can experiment as a speaker – try something new that you’ve been a bit reluctant to try in front of a larger group. If it works, great! You can add it to your collection of useful techniques. If it doesn’t work, or it needs tweaking to be more successful, well, only a few people saw the experimental prototype.

Don’t look on a small Toastmaster audience as being less than ideal. It’s just different. It’s a different type of learning. You’re growing in a different way.

This is your opportunity to stand up like the accomplished, polished speaker you are. Give all six people the best experience you can – that’s how you make it a good and useful experience for yourself.

Do you ever have moments of wondering “What’s the point?” Or on even worse days “Why do I bother?”

The point is…and you bother because… you make a difference.

And if you’re a Toastmaster you can stand up and tell a story about that.

It’s not that you were a hero. (“Let me tell you about the time I jumped into a raging river and pulled three dear little children and their puppy to safety.”)

It’s that someone or some event taught you an important lesson and you can now pass it along.

The difference you can make is in seeing a truth and being able to tell a story that contains and explains that truth and shares it.

Maybe you can make it exciting. Or funny. Or both. Maybe it was an event that affected you so deeply that it takes you a few years to be able to wrap words around it and present it to an audience.

What matters is that what someone said or what someone did moved you a step along life’s journey. And if you share it you can perhaps make someone else’s life journey a little smoother.

We all hit patches in life where we are a bit stuck. Nothing seems to be working. We try and fail. Others don’t help us the way we’d hoped. We have a right to expect something and it doesn’t happen.

And then we get a glimpse of a new perspective, or a kick in the pants or a sign that we take for encouragement. There’s a story there, just waiting to be shared.

That you got lifted out of your funk (or found a way to lift yourself out) is great. But the “What’s the point” moment is the time when you share it to help lift someone else up. It’s when you dress it up into a whole story that keeps your audience hanging on your words, or when you make it emotional and compelling.

The “Why do I bother” moment is when someone comes up to you afterwards and says “Thank you. That’s exactly what I needed to hear.”

Your life is important to your family and friends, but as a Toastmaster it is important (because you make it important) to all your audiences too. Your tiny life-lifting experiences, built into stories, give you the power to influence far more widely than a non-Toastmaster ever could.

When I started at Toastmasters I thought it was all about me making better speeches. It’s not. It’s about me making a better me.

What about you?

It’s tempting for me to believe that readers of this blog spend whole days wondering, “Why did she call it ‘The Story Solver’?”

Possibly not, although I have been asked a few times why. The story is this:

Back a few years I was looking for a project to undertake for my High Performance Leadership (HPL). I needed only the HPL completion at that point to become a Distinguished Toastmaster. I decided that a blog on the topic of putting stories into speeches would be something I could do and it would have continuing usefulness to Toastmasters.

So I assembled an HPL team and started in on the blog.

First thing I needed was a title. I knew that the word ‘story’ needed to be in there. But then what? I cast around for some time, talked to my HPL team and slowly came to the idea that stories were what made speeches interesting and memorable. They solved the problem of dull and boring speeches. And that’s where Story Solver came from.

This was before the idea of stories being the answer to every communication need had become popular. Even so it was not unique. Someone had already grabbed the web site ‘storysolver..com’ so I had to add “the”.

In the years since i started the blog, story telling has become ubiquitous. Almost everyone, Toastmaster or not, has realized that adding stories into a speech helps to interest the audience and to increase the retention of the speech ideas. I’ve been asked to speak on the topic to a variety of audiences and made friends in different countries through the blog. It has brought me much happiness.

The Story Solver has been read by tens of thousands of people – not huge by web standards that only are impressed by millions, but still well ahead of anything I ever expected. The Story Solver became a book that has sold steadily over the years. Again, I’ve found it very satisfying.

People have also asked me, “Why the flowers?”

It’s a personal thing. I find the clip art type photos of happy, successful executives just too common and cheesy. I like flowers better. The photo I’m using at present is one I took in a neighbour’s garden on a day when I thought their daisies looked perfect.

I intend to continue writing thestorysolver.com as I listen to a variety of speeches – both Toastmaster and other speeches – and ideas occur to me.

Do you have ideas to share with me? Please let me know.

Have you ever heard someone say “It was a good enough speech, but it was too plastic.”

In my part of the world that’s what we call a speech that has all the right ingredients but somehow doesn’t quite hit home the way a great speech would. Maybe you call it something different in your part of the world, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

We’re told that a good speech for a contest should be both inspirational and motivational. It should have humour, emotion, a story, a strong opening and conclusion. Indeed it should have all those things. If it is strong in all those areas it will likely get you to the contest at the Division or District level within Toastmasters.

Maybe as you wrote it you checked off all the items on the back of the judging sheet. Yep, I got this, and this and this. Check!

But then there’s that vague criterion “effect on the audience”. If you’ve done several speeches you’ll know that different audiences react in different ways. Some laugh like crazy at lines you didn’t think were funny. Others sit straight-faced through your carefully crafted humour – the part that had other audiences rolling in the aisles. Who knows what effect it will have on this particular audience?

True, a savvy speaker has learned skills of getting his message, his humour and emotion across to an audience in ways that a newer speaker has not yet imagined. But no amount of savvy rescues a plastic speech.

A plastic speech is one that is done for effect rather than for the honest desire to convey a specific message. The speaker has started out with the one thought, “What will win the contest?” Every choice he or she makes supports that one thought.

– The message? The one likeliest to win the contest.

– The emotion? To the extent and depth that is that likeliest to win the contest.

– The call to action? The one likeliest to win the contest.

The overall result? A plastic speech. The whole thing is based on a false premise. Rather than basing speech construction on the idea “How can I best convey this important message to my audience?” it has been based on “How can I win the contest?”

The audience might not be able to explain the difference but they can feel it, they can sense it. At the higher levels of competition, the more experienced judges know an honestly felt speech when they hear it just as an experienced car buyer knows the difference between leather seats and almost-as-good-as-leather seats made of plastic. An experienced judge can tell the difference between a message from the heart and a plastic speech that checks off all the requirements.

By all means develop your message-from-the-heart with all the skill and knowledge and experience you can muster. Remember that it has to beat out that clever plastic speech. But base the foundation of this speech, like all your other speeches, on your true message not on your desire for a trophy.

How I go about evaluating a speech

I start with a clean sheet of paper and I write reminders to myself on the top:

Smile, use third person, start with “It is my honour/privilege to evaluate (name’s) speech (speech title).

I write sub-heads down the left hand side:

I feel it starts my evaluation off logically if I start by quoting the speakers first words, with a compliment about their effectiveness in relation to the purpose and the topic of the speech. If the conclusion connected really well, mention that and point out the link

Structure – usually only takes a quick mention but it’s important to include it.

Content – what the speech was about. Did the speaker include the three important elements – humour, emotion, stories/anecdotes? Be specific about these and how they supported the speech as a whole. Were the transitions smooth?

Presentation – how did the speaker show confidence, passion, connect with the audience? Was the body language appropriate to the speaker and the topic? Select specific details to support your point.

The tip should be phrased in a positive way. “To make this speech even better, I might suggest…” and follow this up with a concrete suggestion. More than one tip is OK but it’s best if they are related

Best. Follow your tip with the one thing you liked best in this speech, say it with enthusiasm.

HAVE AN OBVIOUS SUMMATION. Brief is OK but this is the climax of your evaluation speech, so prepare it carefully. Do not forget this or you will lose marks.

This is just the basic outline – of course there are many other things you might mention, depending on the speech and, of course, on the limited time available. You won’t go far wrong if you cover these bases.

I love this quote so much that I stole it. I heard it first from Seth Godin. It is one of those powerful phrases that packs so much into a few short, direct words.

Whether you are planning a speech, a sales pitch or an elevator pitch, it’s the story that makes it work. It’s the story that makes the connection. Your ideas are great, supporting facts are good too but it’s the story that pierces the armor and gets your message felt rather than heard.

So it’s important that your story fits seamlessly into the message you are trying to get across. The fit should be perfect so that the audience doesn’t have to do a mental jump between the two. The fit should be so good that they can’t imagine that message without that particular story. If they were to repeat the message to someone else they would have to tell the story too.

Better still, if they found your speech so spell-binding that they had to repeat it to the folks back home they would tell the story first and then, oh yes, remember to tack on the message. The best story of all would carry the message implicitly within it and the speaker would not have to state it separately. (Of course, many of us wouldn’t be able to resist that temptation.)

I have to remind myself often that I don’t have to drive my message home with a baseball bat. All I have to do is frame my story so that it precisely fits my message. If you go through your story or memory file you might not find a story that fits perfectly. You do, however, find stories that ‘kind of’ fit. You can frame these so that they fit exactly.

Framing is like manipulating a lump of dough or clay into the precise shape you require. Your story is like that lump of dough or clay. What you make of it is your creative choice. You can emphasize some details and ignore others. You might have to eliminate some of your favourite details to make your story fit your message better. Do it. Don’t leave those details in if they are going to distract from your message.

Think of your opening as the bait and hook that will not only draw your audience into listening, but also focus their mind to the exact place you want it to be. You pull them into the world of your ideas and reward them with your story.

And when you come to your conclusion you don’t end up with words that basically say, “The moral of this story is…”. You give the audience credit for their intelligence, you assume that they ‘got it’. Make the ending of your story satisfying and conclude with word of encouragement. You’re sending them back out into the world not having heard a lesson but having explored a new idea or coping strategy.

We all need those.