November 5, 2012

A Little Nuance Goes a Long Way

In retrospect, I now realize that my first 25 speeches were basically about getting a feel for being at the front of the room. During my next 25 speeches I started to focus on what I had to say and how I wanted to say it.

It took another 50 or so speeches before I had enough successes and had made enough mistakes to feel like a professional speaker. By that time, I’d spoken all over the country to audiences large and small, in hotel ballrooms, corporate headquarters and occasionally (sadly enough), in the back of Italian restaurants!

During those first few years, the learning curve was pretty steep. But after hundreds of speeches and presentations, the learning curve became more gradual. The refinements and tweaks to both my content and my delivery became more detailed, more subtle.

Ask any golfer and they’ll tell you that after a couple of years of hitting the ball, the improvements needed become more subtle. It’s the same with any new endeavor. Most of the big improvements come at the beginning. The learning curve is always steepest up front.

Nuance: A subtle distinction or variation. The ability to express delicate shadings of meaning, feeling or value.

The Three Nuance Tips I want to share with you in this article relate to subtle, but powerful, changes you can make during a speech or presentation that will take you to the next level.

Nuance #1 – Transitions

A speech is composed of many elements. I often refer to them as chapters or scenes. One or more of the elements may be the stories that you tell. Other elements are quotes, references to chapters in a book, news articles, audience polls, interactive activities, skits, songs, poems, demonstrations, etc.

While some of these elements or content delivery vehicles, can be lumped together in one “chapter”, others are the beginning of something new. An effective way of making the transition from one element or chapter to the next can be done with a physical transition.

When I finish performing a story, I often stop, walk in silence five or six feet away from where I ended the story, and then begin the next element. This physical transition, in silence, creates a subtle, but important, distinction between one chapter and the next. The silence gives the listener a chance to digest the point before moving on.

Nuance #2 – Reactions

During the course of your day, whether you realize it or not, you react multiple times. For example: you get busy on a project and then remember that you’re meeting someone for lunch. When you look up at the clock, you realize you should have left the office ten minutes ago. Your reaction is on multiple levels: physical, vocal and emotional.

If you were telling that story to an audience to make a point about time management, you might narrate your reaction by saying, “I jumped up from my desk, grabbed my coat and ran out the door. I couldn’t believe I did it again. By the time I got to my car I was fuming.”

My Story Theater Method would instruct that right after you realize that you’re late, you don’t talk – you react. Don’t describe it; show it. Jump up. Get agitated. Make some emotional grunts and groans.

In real life, we never narrate our experience as it’s happening. When something goes wrong, we react emotionally. Our emotions cause us to say and do things. We may use words, but we also make sounds. We stomp and twist and shake our heads. We gesticulate with our hands and arms.

When you react, you stimulate a sensory reaction in your audience. When you only describe your reaction in words, that doesn’t happen.  They feel what you feel. It only takes three seconds to do this. Reactions are nuances that create emotional texture in your speech.

Nuance #3 – Congruent Emotion

The most effective Story Theater stories are built around obstacles and challenges. Stories that have no obstacles – what I call success stories – are more powerful if they follow a story with an obstacle or challenge.

When you encounter the obstacle in a story, you should have emotion, and that, in turn, stimulates an emotional reaction in your listener. Perhaps the reaction is anger or frustration or shock. Whatever emotion you felt at the time that you encountered the obstacle, is the congruent emotion for that moment in the story.

As an actor, portraying emotion is an integral part of any performance. When I first began speaking, I took all of the emotions that didn’t seem “motivational” out of my speeches, even though many of my stories contained moments of frustration, tension and confusion.

Emotion is the fast lane to the brain. Email Deborah to request my article on Brain Science and Storytelling to read the research to support this fact. If you can connect your ideas, concepts and learning points to a congruent emotional situation, it is more likely to be remembered.

Your reactions should be congruent emotions.  There are also many other places in a speech where congruent emotions will add emotional depth to your message. Here are some examples:

When you are talking about a mentor, someone you love and respect, don’t be afraid to let your tender emotions show.

When you are discussing a safety issue and the fact that someone was seriously injured because they didn’t follow safety protocols, the congruent emotion you are feeling will go a long way in communicating the seriousness of the situation.

If the word just came down from corporate that you’re going to have to lay off ten percent of the workforce, expressing shock and sadness would be congruent.

A little nuance goes a long way. As you mature in your speaking ability, the subtleties and emotional qualities that you bring to your topic will give it a richer texture. Nuance: the ability to express delicate shadings of meaning, feeling or value, is the next level of speaking excellence.


Call for your free 20-minute phone consultation with Doug Stevenson. Or email [email protected] to get your copy of the article on Brain Science and Storytelling.

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