The Emotional Side of Storytelling

Personal storytelling is all about sharing and understanding. The sharing of your experiences, views, insights, opinions, perspectives and wisdom, in the hopes that your audience – in front of people and/or by way of video or audio production – will gain a newfound understanding of the important topic at the center of your story, as well as better knowing you, the speaker.

In order to achieve this enhanced level of understanding, and to foster positive change as a result, there are two questions that I always pose to a speaker as they develop their story:

1) What will the audience think?

2) How will the audience feel?

The thinking part is a mixture of information and logic – the facts that you offer to support your message, and the way in which those facts are arranged. (more on this in a future post)

The feeling part is about the emotional reaction(s) that your audience will have, both during and after your presentation. In most cases a great talk will create feelings of being inspired, empowered and hopeful. Despite the negative aspects and implications that you may reveal during your speech, as problems are rarely upbeat in nature, you also include a proposed solution that invites the audience to participate, thus offering the vision of a brighter future.

For example, a story about traveling to Mars in a spaceship may evoke feelings of excitement, as well as fear, pride and hope, while a talk about overcoming the challenges you faced in order to become a successful entrepreneur may evoke feelings of connection and empathy, as well as inspiration and determination.

Without an emotional reaction to your message,
an audience will simply become apathetic.

Listed below are examples of how an audience might feel during or after hearing your story. It is by no means comprehensive – it’s up to you to determine the emotions that you want to convey in your story – so feel free to add to this collection as you see fit.

Feeling wiserFeeling smarterFeeling depressed
Feeling lovedFeeling hopefulFeeling challenged
Feeling proudFeeling inspiredFeeling recognized
Feeling happyFeeling reverentFeeling empathetic
Feeling fearfulFeeling powerfulFeeling entertained
Feeling scaredFeeling liberatedFeeling determined
Feeling excitedFeeling validatedFeeling understood
Feeling humbleFeeling awestruckFeeling empowered
Feeling curiousFeeling connectedFeeling enlightened

As you draft each Story Block while working on your manuscript, think about the emotion you want the audience to feel during each point in the story. While recognizing the importance of word choice, do the words/phrases/sentences as written properly represent those feelings?

And when you enter the presentation phase and begin rehearsing, make sure your voice also matches the intended emotion. This is where vocal variation can really shine in its ability to bring your words to life. Record yourself, then play it back and listen to the tone, volume and inflection of your voice. If you’re rehearsing in front of friends or family, ask them if the emotions in your voice match the intent of your words. They’ll usually hear any mismatches.

Storytelling Emotions CollageEmotional Reaction Photos by Robin Higgins at Pixabay

Using Story for Persuading, Influencing, or Most Importantly, for Understanding

If you spend time, as I do, reading about the art and practice of storytelling you will often come across reference to the notion of persuading or influencing as the objective of crafting and presenting the story that you have in mind. I hear this from other speaker coaches, as well as renowned public speakers, and it’s not wrong, but it’s never been the way I see things.

Having watched a few thousand talks, and worked with a few hundred speakers, the stories which impacted me the most were the ones that informed me, expanded my knowledge, or brought forward a new way of looking at an important issue, not those trying to convince me that their way of thinking was better than mine.

Persuading
Causing someone to do something, or believe something, through reasoning or argument

Influencing
Having an effect on someone with the desire to change their behaviors, beliefs, or opinions

Understanding
The ability to comprehend based on knowledge of a subject, problem, process, or situation

When working with speakers I’ll ask them to think about what their audience will understand differently after hearing their talk. And there’s not a single answer to that question, as each person will have a different mindset before your talk begins.

And while it’s impossible to know what everyone listening understands in the moment, it’s a productive exercise to at least define a number of general categories (half a dozen or so) and then write out how you see their thinking/understanding transform.

For example, “Most people have no idea how big the refugee crisis really is, but after hearing my talk they will understand that nearly 1 in 100 people around the world has been displaced from their home.” [Watch Brian Sokol’s TEDx Talk]

Take that view a level deeper as you think about your audience by age, income, gender, ethnicity, education. How would a native understand your talk differently than an immigrant? Or a college student, as compared to a politician or business leader?

This exercise will prove beneficial while editing your manuscript. Consider your choice of words, and how deep you take your explanation of the issue. Remember, it’s not about having the audience think like you, it’s about them thinking differently than before they heard your talk.

Peace at the University

One of the benefits of being a professional in the field of higher education is the opportunity to change the lives of students at a critical point in their personal development. As young adults discover who they are and attempt to map out their future, or at least determine the direction they will take upon graduation, they need to know how they can make a difference.

As Dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego (USD), Patricia Márquez understands the perils of conflict, the importance of conflict resolution, and the need to develop peace professionals.

Dean Márquez doesn’t open her talk by referencing USD, or her own experience as an educator, but rather tells a historical tale that takes the audience back in time to “113 years ago, in 1895”. She goes on to explain how Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University, decided to start a business school at the university. This combination of a second hand story and historical narrative is a compelling way to begin her talk about the importance of peace studies in a world that is dealing with conflict at every turn.

At three minutes into her talk Dean Márquez brings us a century forward into the present day, and for the first time introduces the topic of conflict resolution. She makes the case that just as business education became a foundational piece of our expanding economy, peace studies will become just as pivotal in shaping our collective future. This is an interesting way in which an audience comes to understand the merits of an idea by hearing about a similar, or parallel story that comes to the same conclusion. “We need professionals to build peace.”

This statement becomes her stake in the ground, the key idea that she will go on to explain in detail with specific examples of how this paradigm is playing out around the world. She then uses specific examples to illustrate the challenges we face in achieving peaceful coexistence. From New York City to Kibera, Nairobi, Mexico City and Cape Town, to the most common human desire, to live a better life, as exemplified by the flow of migrants.

“In an increasingly diverse, dense, and connected world, the question for us is how to build peaceful coexistence where the rights of all individuals are being met.”

How does your story relate to events in the past? Is there a parallel story that can highlight the path of your own narrative? Are there personal stories that provide current and relevant examples of how your idea or solution can change the status quo?

Peace Innovators is a program from the Kroc School of Peace Studies, University of San Diego in which select faculty members prepare presentations that are focused on the human issues they address within their professional studies as well as class curriculum. I had the pleasure of working with each of these speakers as they prepared their talks.