Stories Make Great Speeches

According to Deena Metzger (1992), six ideas can help us with the creative process of composing a great speech. From what I have learned anecdotally, about half of the great speakers write their speeches out.  The other “half” compose in other ways with index cards, notes (mental or written), or with mental formulation reinforced with “private” rehearsals.  This essay summarizes and expands upon Deena Metzger’s ideas: contemplate one “larger” story to provide a framework and then pick three top events; collect (reframe) the context for each story; contemplate the associations and details (surroundings, music, outcomes); capture the changes (the plot line); recreate the physical environment; conclude with an answer to the embedded question (or a resolution to the challenge).

The “Larger” Story and the Top Three Events If you have ever had to compose an obituary, deliver a eulogy, or speak at your own retirement ceremony, you have probably experienced what Metzger (1992) describes as selecting the top three stories of your life or the life of a loved one (and how your life or other lives intersected). In an early part of her book, Deena tells us to avoid the unimportant, the private, the embarrassing, the offensive, and the taboo. Those avoidances might eliminate our “best” leave-it-in-Las-Vegas stories; however, Metzger suggests that topics to avoid are good material for the obfuscation of poetry (poetry has more license than public speaking). For our own epitaph, selecting worthy stories to tell requires deep thought. If we cannot think of any meaningful stories, perhaps it is time to travel, take up a new hobby, or find new friends who will help us create new stories worth telling. Justin Dillon (2017) speaks and writes eloquently about the plight of many who have plenty of means but a painful poverty of meaning.  Wealth does not provide meaning according to Dillon but finding a mission in life can reap meaningful rewards.

Collect the Context of Each Event For each top story, we have different characters, a different setting, and most likely a major lesson learned. Before starting to write, most writers will formulate a plan (notes, an outline, a mindmap, a T-chart or quad chart, or just a “throwaway” start [a prototype]). Most stories have roots, consequences, trials, and hopefully triumphs of sorts. The evolution from trial to triumph usually involves suspense even if the ending can be anticipated. A surprise ending is always a pleasant way to end even if the story is a Hallmark movie that generally always ends happily (audiences love happy endings). Many fictional characters always lived “happily ever after” and most of us hope for and imagine happy endings. Listeners and readers tend to anticipate and enjoy a nice tidy closing.  Suspense involves progressive disclosure and one or more unexpected obstacles.

Contemplate the Associations Metzger (1992) observes that each story has a smaller story inside and a larger story outside. Usually every story has a side story (sidebar) and a moral or lesson. Perhaps the associations are to songs or historical background events. Perhaps the “event” was part of a larger Event such as a graduation or prom or championship. Perhaps one of more of the top three stories took place on interesting trips. Some great speakers will weave their stories around a common theme such as bicycle trips, cruises, sporting events, military operations, or academic accomplishments.

Capture the Changes Metzger (1992) emphasizes that we are constantly in a state of flux. Most likely our three top stories have to do with “aha” moments (epiphanies) or “oh no” mishaps (epic gaffes). Hopefully we always learn from our epiphany moments and our near misses or catastrophic encounters. Self-knowledge as a concept can be somewhat misleading if we don’t recognize that we are always changing as we strive to be the best version of ourselves or temporarily give in to our character traits as we grow to know and “love” ourselves as we are. Many people will proudly claim that they “hate” self-help books, but when we hear these words, we are probably saying to ourselves, “too bad, you could use some self-improvement.” Or, “too bad, I can tell you stopped improving yourself decades ago.” Or, “you are lucky to be one of the few perfect people on this planet.”  Toastmasters have a common bond of recognizing room for improvement and wielding brooms for the dust and broken pieces.

Recreate the Physical Environment Military experiences can be hard to recreate for someone who has never been in the military. Hollywood does a typically hyperbolic job of recreating military life, but a movie buff can usually connect a real life story to a recent or old movie of war, boot camp, or espionage. The writer’s or speaker’s challenge is often to recreate the environment (and the context) for a listener or reader with a poor image of the scenario. Photos and graphics can help in books and in presentations. A picture is worth a thousand words and usually does a better job than even thousands of words. Creating images with words alone is a lofty (mountainous) challenge.  Having a few well-chosen props can give a speech a visual boost and often burst of humor as well.

Conclude with an Answer to the Question Most big stories in life begin with a question or a puzzle or a decision. Should I go to this school or that school? Should I ask this person or that person to be my prom date? Should I major in business or liberal arts or science? As we travel through the journey of life, we usually have fewer and fewer big decisions, but as we tell our stories invariably they will likely gravitate to crossroads earlier in our journey (joining the military or deciding to stay in [or get out]), where we made a good or bad decision that affected our potential and future prospects.

Concluding Thoughts A helpful technique when selecting the “three or four biggest stories in life” is to categorize the potential stories and select the best in categories such as my funniest experience, my saddest experience or loss, my most inspiring situation, or the most important person in my life. You are the expert historian of your life and you hold the ability to tie together the threads. Writing your memoirs for your own family will be a great gift to your children and grandchildren even if never published. A written work can always be reproduced or recirculated. An unwritten story goes quietly to the grave. A written work lives on if only on aging paper.  Of course, once you write or formulate the larger story and the events within the story you have a meaningful speech worth delivering.

References

Dillon,, J. (2017). A selfish plan to save the world: Finding big purpose in big problems. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Metzger, D. (1992). Writing for your life: A companion to the inner worlds. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

About the Author

Mike Piellusch, ACB, joined Toastmasters circa 1985.  His first club was Jetstream Toastmasters, which was founded in 1957 and is still going strong.  Due to a Silicon Valley job change, Mike dropped out of Toastmasters in 1986 and was “club-less” until he found Gribble Gatekeepers at the Humphreys Engineer Center in 2015.  Mike earned his Competent Communicator Award (CC) at Gribble Gatekeepers and served as Vice President of Education (VPE), Club President, and Newsletter Editor.  Mike has also been a member of the REAL Advanced Club where he served as Vice President of Public Relations (VPPR) and Sergeant at Arms.  He is currently a fairly new member of the Belvoir Club (founded coincidentally in 1985).  A very slow driver in the “middle lane,”  Mike earned his Advanced Communicator Bronze (ACB) in 2018 after 33 years of speaking, thinking about speaking, and challenging a few dedicated VPEs .

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