Monday, August 11, 2014

How Storytelling Engages an Audience

In the summer at end of day, weather permitting – which means not too cool or foggy – I look forward to crossing the lawn, climbing the wood stairs to the top of the levee, and navigating the path around kayaks, brightly colored life jackets, and an old metal canoe—this year’s randomly assembled obstacle course to the river. Although it still catches me by surprise, I usually remember and anticipate passing a surprisingly realistic ceramic alligator partially submerged in gravel. From that point the dusty path winds steeply down to a metal gate erected years ago to keep out the deer.                

On a good day the key slides effortlessly into the lock. Once unlocked, the heavy gate swings wide to the other side. I quickly slip through and follow the path to the stairs leading to the weather-worn floating dock below.

This evening I stop and cut a blackberry vine, which in a day has grown across the bottom step. Then, having traversed two bends in the stairs and a small plank to the dock, I am there. Sitting on the edge, I swing my legs over the side and feel around until my feet find the submerged first rung of the ladder.  

The water’s cooling effect is immediate, and soon my legs adjust to the wetness and chilly temperature. Generally, in early evening with the light less intense, I and a few ducks have the Russian River to ourselves. This year the fish are more than plentiful; and although not desirable to eat, the carp are big, abundant and darting everywhere! The view up river is perfection: the sky a light blue and the river a brilliant, deeper blue, framed on the left by a wide, warm, beige gravel bar while lush green tree branches line the opposite bank.

So what do my floating dock reflections have to do with making a presentation? Effective communicators know how to paint a picture, use the familiar for a compelling story, lay out a path to deal with obstacles, convey emotions that feel right to connect with an audience, and address the unknowns while bringing the listener along—all the ingredients for a stunning performance and achieving enhanced and successful communication.

So how do you do this? Are you trying to change the world, or do you just have something interesting to say? Either way your objective should be to entertain and inspire your audience and to end up feeling mighty good about your presentation. And applause is always appreciated.

So start by spending time thinking about your audience and what they need or want to hear. Here are three topics to help you deliver your message and engage your audience.

Tell stories. My intent was to draw you in to walk with me across the lawn or to run and catch up so we could have a conversation as we climbed the steps together. If I have done a good job of storytelling, you will be at my side on some part of the journey and will eagerly anticipate getting to the floating dock as much as I do. And, if you are a child, you will race to get there first!

Inspire. Paint a word picture; let your audience see what you see and be drawn in and inspired by your vision. I credit my mother with giving me a heightened visual awareness and a sense of wonder about all things around me. I call it The Rachel Carson kind of seeing. Strive for that feeling in your descriptions. Comment on texture, space or color, as it will help your audience see and experience what you see. Speakers who can’t see or feel their words will experience difficulty connecting successfully with an audience. 

Move.  Look for opportunities to practice; whenever possible, get on your feet to deliver your message. Note I am not talking about standing for just a formal speaking engagement. The advice is for beginners and even veteran speech makers. Let your body work for and with you. We do a lot of sitting, and the result is a rusty, tight body that doesn’t move gracefully to enhance and support your words. Think of the body as running “out of memory,” and you will realize how important it is to regularly get your muscles recharged through practice.

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