How many of you read fiction? Actually sit down and read a story that’s the product of an author’s imagination? To be a captivating speaker it’s crucial to be familiar with the process of stimulating your audience’s imagination. Good fiction authors are masters at that. JK Rowling created a very real world in the Harry Potter series. Even if the books hadn’t been made into movies, Hogwarts, Wizards and Muggles, Quidditch and portkeys would all have vividly existed in readers’ minds.
The act of reading fiction turns the words on the page into a virtual movie, where you automatically fill in the scenes with details the author didn’t even write – the exact shades of color, the size of the space, whether people are short or tall. In that process you take partial ownership of the story – helping to co-create your own version of the action along with the author.
So, how does this apply to public speaking? When you speak to an audience you want them to feel a connection with you. One of the ways to ensure this is to have them “see” your story in their minds, like a movie, while you speak.
You want to tell your story in such a way that your audience members visualize it and become co-creators of the events and information with you, seeing the room, meeting, or road as it appears in detail to them. Reading lots of fiction will help you make this happen, since you’ll be doing this yourself with every book you read. Not only will you naturally tell your stories with more detail, prompting the audience to add even more in their mind’s eye, you’ll also be more familiar with the speech rhythms of good storytelling.
Here’s a timely example, given all the royal baby news this past week:
I could say, “My two years of living in Great Britain as a child sparked an affection for the British monarchy.” It’s factual, but boring, and doesn’t invite you to imagine anything.
But, because I’ve read lots of fiction here’s what I might say instead:
“We lived in England for two years when I was in grade school so my professor dad could do research in the libraries at Cambridge University. We visited London many times, and often rode past Buckingham Palace, where I saw the palace guards in their red uniforms and bearskin hats. I always looked up at the windows, hoping to see the Queen looking out at me. I dreamed incessantly about being invited to meet the Queen, and covered sheets and sheets of paper with drawings of the new, fancy clothes and shoes we’d be required to wear in order to meet her.
“Eventually I wrote the Queen a letter. I said she was very pretty in her postcard photographs, and could I meet her someday? And I got a letter back! It was light blue with a gold royal emblem embossed on the flap, and it was from Rose Baring, Lady in Waiting to Her Majesty. She wrote, ‘The Queen has commanded me to write to you and thank you so much for your kind letter. She hopes you enjoy the rest of your time here and that you’ll come back again.’
“I was so happy! Although I didn’t get to meet her, that short letter cemented my lifelong soft spot for Queen Elizabeth.”
Yes, it’s a lot longer than the first example. But which one helped you see a small movie and get involved? Did you imagine photos you’ve seen of the Queen? Did you see the letter? What size and shape did you make it? What shade of blue did you color it?
The fiction that I’ve read, without me consciously thinking of it, helped me tell that story.
It’s informed by Cinderella, Jane Austen novels, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, and a whole lot more.
There’s lots of excellent fiction out there to read, and I encourage you to seek it out and read it! But you don’t even have to read quality fiction for it to help. Dan Brown’s potboiler novels create heart-pounding imagination movies despite his purple prose. The idea is to unleash your imagination when you read fiction so you can get comfortable with storytelling yourself, and stimulate the imagination and co-creative powers of your listeners when you tell them the truth.
Read lots of fiction. It will help you be a great speaker!