Show, don’t tell; A storyteller’s best friend.

“Tom’s fingers were trembling. His eyes followed my glare to his hands. He jerked them behind his back. Much better. After three tries the question finally came out: ‘Would you… Like, you know. Maybe, some time, have a drink somewhere. Like, with me, I’d be there too.’”

“He was very nervous, that was obvious. Asking me out was really scary to him.“

Let me introduce you: show vs. tell.

 

The principle “show, don’t tell” is a storyteller’s best friend. Well, at least one of them. Anyone who’s ever spent any time studying creative writing will be familiar with this technique. For anyone who hasn’t, let me explain. Show, don’t tell is a technique used to take the reader or listener by the hand and let them feel and experience everything the story has to offer. As if they are there themselves. In the first example, you really look at Tom the way the main character does. I don’t need to tell you that he’s nervous, you can see that for yourself. The second version is just dry information. At the end of the snippet, you know just as much as you do at the end of number 1. Yet, at the end of 1, you feel much more.

 

I don’t think I have to convince you of the importance of emotion. Storytelling is first and foremost about making people feel something. If they don’t feel anything, they’re not going to care about anything. For your audience to start feeling, you, as a storyteller, need to get close to them or get them close to you. Through show, don’t tell, you can get them close to you in your story. Have them walk around in it themselves, have them explore and make it their own.

 

So, how do we do this show don’t tell thing? A neat little exercise to practice showing is eliminating adjectives. If you can’t say “he is nervous”, you have to find another way of making it clear. I’m not saying adjectives are bad, they’re not! This is, however, a nice way to practice.
Another thing to do is keep asking yourself the question: what does that look like. Be specific, give me details. Zoom in on one specific telltale sign of what you are trying to convey.

 

Now, let’s put it into practice! In the comments make your own show, don’t tell of this little snippet:

“She was sad to see him leave. Yet, she did know it was better this way.”

Go nuts, add all you want, just take me through your story. Can’t wait to see what you come up with!

Eliminate these 5 words/phrases from your speech to be taken seriously.

I’m from a country where everything is “-tje”. Biertje, schooltje, dingetje. This popular extension of Dutch words means little. Therefore, that the words above mean: little beer, little school and little thing. Except for they don’t. When your friend invites you to go out for a biertje, this certainly doesn’t mean that he wants to have shot-sized beers with you. Most of the time, -tje is simply used to make something sound less harsh. However, what it really does in many cases is undermine the speaker. This is why so many Dutch people are campaigning to ban the word “bedrijfje” (little company) from everyone’s vocabulary. Saying that you have a bedrijfje, feels like you’re not taking your business seriously. And although the English language does not have similar, obstinate word extension, there are many speech patterns that have the same effect. So, here are 5 things you should stop saying if you want to be taken seriously.

  1. Like

A few months ago I joined a tourist tour in my own city, Amsterdam. Also joining this tour was a young American girl. Valey girl inflection and all I had such a hard time following her. Mainly because every second word in her sentences was like. “Like, it was like so I was like. Really? Like what was that like?” People are not supposed to talk like that. I know, it’s all very hip and trendy but it’s just terribly difficult to take someone who speaks like that seriously.

Whenever you use the word like you’re actually saying that you’re not willing to commit to what comes after it. “It’s like a really nice website.” No! It’s a really nice website, period.

In case it really is “like” something and not exactly it, try playing around with words such as (see how I avoided like here): similar to.

  1. Kind of / sort of

These two words are basically the same as like. There’s not used as frequently and not as out of context as like is but still, avoid them! Commit to what you’re saying!

  1. Just

This is a very apologetic word. “I just want to say.” You’re saying that you’re sorry you are speaking up, sorry you’re taking up the audience’s time and that what you’re saying isn’t nearly as important as all the other things your audience could be doing with their time. Stop it!

  1. Disqualifying yourself

“I am really nervous.” “I’m not good at this.” “I’m no expert but…”

With sentences like these, the audience will start looking for proof that what you’re saying is true. So if the first thing after saying this comes out as a stammer they have their proof and enough reason to stop listening. If you don’t say this and you stammer, it was just a stammer. Which we all do from time to time. Never give them a reason to look for your faults in this way. Never!

  1. Telling them you’re not worth their time

“I’ll only be up here a minute.” “I won’t bother you for too long.” “I quickly want to say.”

You’re worth listening to. Make that clear. You’re not up there wasting their time, you’re providing your audience with valuable insights. If not, work on becoming a better storyteller rather than excusing yourself for everything you say.

 

Most of these words have found their way into our subconscious speech patterns which makes it difficult to get rid of. First of all, make sure that they are not in the written version of your speech. Know your speech inside out, this will definitely help. Secondly, practice pausing rather than using filler words. Pausing is awesome! It gives you time to gather your thoughts while looking really intelligent. The audience will feel like you’re building tension.

Asking a friend to help you eliminate these words from your everyday speech will also be very helpful. Because like most things: what helps you become a better speaker on stage, will help you in daily life too.

Off to an interesting start; don’t kill your chances with a boring opening line.

“I spent 4,5 hours trying to figure out the perfect opening line and I haven’t gotten any further than ‘Welcome. My name is John and today I will teach you all about bitcoin.’ ”
I seldom have to spend any time convincing people of the importance of a good opening line; your opening will determine how your audience is listening to your message. The more difficult thing for most people to understand is how easy an opening can be. It’s safe to say that 4,5 hours is definitely overthinking it!

Yes, it does matter

When you kick off your presentation with a catchy opening, your audience will listen with their entertainment ears. They’ll be relaxed, expecting it to be fun and captivating. It is easy for them to believe what you say and to bond with you as a speaker and person. In other words, your audience is in the perfect mode for you to influence them.

However, start off with a sentence like John’s and they will be listening with their fact checking ears. Your listeners have their rational brain turned on and ready to think critically. This is a good mode for them to be in to learn new facts but they will also be more likely to question what you say.

The opening question

Many people who are trying to escape John’s opening, resort to the opening question. “Who here has ever stood in line for more than 15 minutes?” “Who here owns a car?”

You know what, opening with a question is not bad! It really has its perks: it can help you calm down when you’re nervous by making it feel more like a conversation than a presentation and it will get your audience to be more active rather than passive.

The downside to it, in my opinion, is that it’s done so often. Yes, cliches are cliches for a reason and all that but if you can build up the courage, go for something else next time.

The any-old-conversation-opening

We tell stories all the time. We might not be aware of it and granted, some are better at it than others, but we do! You tell your wife about this weird dude in the office. She tells you about that awkward moment she at Starbucks. Honestly, presentations are not that different. It’s just a conversation in which it’s unacceptable to interrupt you. Perfect! So start off your story in a way you would start off any old conversation. “You won’t believe what my boss said today!” “Last weekend I was talking to my brother about parenthood.” “Let me tell you what happened yesterday when I was doing my laundry!”

These types of sentences are a promise of a story so your audience’s entertainment ears will be wide open.

The catchy phrase

And then there are the catchy phrases. Something the audience doesn’t expect to hear. Often a bold statement that amuses them, intrigues them or even upsets them. You could make a statement that contradicts the general opinion: “Donald Trump is the best president the US has seen in over 100 years.” (He’s not… really not.) You could use a powerful quote or even an absurd statement: “I know we all believe cucumbers to be an inferior produce.” Your audience will certainly want the explanation for this and their entertainment ears will be on!

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that it is bad when your audience is listening through their fact checking ears. Especially when your audience exists of peers, people who can talk about your subject on the same level as you do, you want them to listen in a critical manner. Nonetheless, it is really effective to ease them into your presentation with an entertaining opening to help them connect with you as a speaker. The facts come later. The facts always come later.

Suffering from Impostor Syndrome; What if they find out I don’t really know what I’m doing?

Public speaking is scary. For the vast majority of the human race this is the case. Even the lucky few who can’t wait to get on stage and expose themselves to an audience of staring eyes, will agree that there is a certain thrill to it. Unsurprisingly, the fear of public speaking is rooted in our own insecurities. Some people feel uncomfortable in their own body when they’re on stage, others are afraid of rejection from the audience. An insecurity I come across often is the so-called Impostor Syndrome, the fear of being found out as a fraud. The feeling that you don’t actually know what you’re doing, you’ve just been lucky so far. Let this fear have the upper hand and you will never be the best speaker you can be.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Study shows that 70% of people are familiar with the feeling of being an impostor. A fraud who will be exposed any minute now.

Although it was first recorded with women and many articles about this phenomenon highlight high achieving women, it is certainly not just a female problem. Nobody is safe from this burden. People of whom we are all sure they are on top of the talent and skill list, such as Maya Angelou and John Steinbeck, also felt they would be “found out” sooner or later.

I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ “ – Maya Angelou

It may seem contradictory, but in many cases, sufferers also experience moments of overconfidence. I, myself, recognise both sides of the coin. Right after a successful workshop to a happy crowd I feel on top of the world. “God, do I know much about storytelling!” This feeling can completely change right before I have to tell a potential client what my service will cost them. “What do I really know about anything?”

“I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” – John Steinbeck

Dunning Kruger effect

A phenomenon closely related to the Impostor Syndrome is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Simply put the Dunning-Kruger effect says that incompetent people overestimate their abilities and competent people underestimate them. The main reason for this is that the more we know, the more we understand how much we don’t know. People who are just mastering simple additions and subtractions have no idea about the vast world of mathematics. They’re good at additions and subtractions so they figure they’re good at math. Also, when you’re just starting out learning something, you lack the knowledge that is necessary to recognise your own mistakes. You don’t see how bad you’re doing.

On the other hand, people with moderate to expert competence, have enough knowledge to see how much they haven’t mastered yet. Additionally, experts see that they do have an extensive knowledge but they assume everyone else does too.

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” – Bertrand Russell

The effect on stage

These two phenomena can have a serious effect on you as a speaker. Or even on you as a conversationalist, especially when you’re trying to sell yourself and your business. I have worked with people who had an important sales pitch coming up and kept feeling like they were just boasting, rather than confidently telling people about the value they bring. Basically, they were playing themselves down and undermining their own story.

I have a standard introduction template that I teach my clients where I ask them to come up with an expertise. One of my clients, who owns two successful language schools, did not feel they had proven themselves enough to “claim” any teaching or language expertise.

Well, if you don’t believe it yourself, why should anyone else?
Where humility and vulnerability, when used right, can definitely work in your advantage as a speaker, insecurity and anxiety will only harm your story.

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” – C.S. Lewis

What to do about it

For me, the fact that these are recognised phenomena, already helped a lot. I just remind myself of that whenever I experience a fit of Impostor Syndrome.

Another this to know is that by practicing confident body language, we can not only fool our audience but also our own minds. With the right posture (shoulders back, head held high, feet apart) we can make ourselves believe that we are much more certain of ourselves than we actually are. “Fake it until you become it”, Amy Cuddy said in her Ted Talk.

My advice: embrace your impostordom when it comes to your confidence and fool yourself until you can finally really believe what everyone else has already seen.  

How Improv Can Make You a Better Speaker and Happier Human

IMPRO Amsterdam Festival

Improvisation theater (improv) is the art of creating theater out of nothing. No script, no director, no rehearsals. Sometimes the improvisors don’t even know the people they are playing with. Still, when you bring experienced players together on a stage, magic can happen. The beauty of it is, improv is for everyone, it is one of the most inclusive communities I know. No wonder, because everyone who has ever done improv knows how enriching it can be to your professional and personal life.

It’s so much fun
First and foremost, if you ask me, improv is simply one of the most enjoyable things in this world. Extreme giggles are guaranteed. There’s just something about a group of 10 adults, bankers, managers, teachers, coaches in their daily lives, walking around a room and pretending to be chickens. Sometimes you’re laughing because everything is going right and great comedy is created, sometimes you’re laughing because the whole scene is getting messed up. One way or another, laugh you shall.

Become fearless
One of the most common fears we humans suffer from is stage fright. Having an audience of people staring at you, not knowing what they are thinking. Particularly, not knowing what they are thinking about you. For many people an absolute nightmare. The best advice I can give these people: go and start doing improv!
Every improv teacher will agree that their most important job during a workshop is maintaining a balance between safety and challenge. Because only in a safe environment we feel like we can experiment and overcome our fear of doing it all wrong all the time. After doing improv for 6 months you will see that you will have overcome a lot of the fear without having even noticed it.

Brain training
Thinking on your feet, creative thinking, finding solutions where there don’t seem to be any, listening and reacting quickly, remembering everything that has happened so far (including where exactly the invisible door is that you just created) all whilst keeping constant track of how your scene partner is doing. Train improv on a regular basis and you will be able to do all these things at the same time. If you can multitask like this on a stage with an audience watching you, why wouldn’t you be able to do it in your daily life as well? At parties you will remember everyone’s name, at work you will come up with the creative solutions, during your presentations you will be able to answer even the toughest of questions and at home you will read your partner’s mood more closely.

Say yes
There is not a more positive bunch than a group of improvisors. The number one rule of improv is called “yes, and…”. Yes, I accept your idea and I will add something that will make the story grow. In other words, improvisors are conditioned to say yes. To go along with other people’s ideas, to try out different things and to act more and talk less. In a culture like my own, the Dutch culture, where often times the answers is “no, but I’ll think about it”, positivity is such a valuable skill to have. Start doing improv and find out for yourself which unexpected and wonderful experiences “yes, and…” can bring you.

When I get to talking about improv, it’s hard for me to stop. When something has enriched your own life like this, you simply need to share it with everyone. All I can add is find your local improv group or beginners course and start experiencing the positivity, safety and challenge, creativity and laughing fits yourself.

The three elements of public speaking

For the past few years I have been observing many talks and presentations. Most of what I’ve learned and gathered about public speaking comes from these observations. What is the difference between a boring talk, a good talk and a great one? I have found that there are 3 elements of public speaking. Boring talks focus on the first, good talks master number one and two. Great talks manage to incorporate the final element as well.

  1. Content

The content is the information there is. This is what you came to tell. The facts, the figures, the stats. If you give a talk about cats and you know two things about cats: they don’t like dogs but they do like tuna, then this is your content.

You step onto the stage, maybe welcome your audience and tell them your two facts. End of talk.

If you want your audience’s minds to go wandering during your talk, this is the way to go. They will soon into your talk stop really listening and they will certainly not remember your message afterwards.

  1. Technique

Technique is everything that happens in and around your body. Your posture, your voice, your intonation and of course your hands. Just like content, technique is indeed a vital element of a successful talk. You want to practice techniques such as projecting your voice, speaking at a comfortable speed and the art of not fidgeting. But, for a great talk, focussing on only these two element is simply not enough. If you really want your audience to hang on you every word, you need element three!

  1. Form

This is where the magic happens! A well-thought-out form is the missing element in most talks. The form is where you create your story. I’m not talking about a fairytale or any kind of once-upon-a-time here. Your story is the sauce you pour over your content and technique. It is the analogy you use to make your content comprehensible, it’s the slides you show to engage your audience verbally and visually, it is the way you dress to complement your posture. An example of a form that has inspired me is this talk by Latif Nasser where he is having a dialogue with a recording. Or this talk by Anne Lamott in which she brings her content in 12 truths she knows for sure (and a very good dose of humour). I myself have once given a pitch in which I put all my content in a eulogy rather than a list of facts.

So, do you want to give great talks rather than boring or even good ones? Give some thought to the form you want to give to your content and technique. Your speech will be easier and especially more fun to write, to give and to follow.