Tailor Your Words — Helen McKay

Have you ever sat in a audience, listening to a speaker, or storyteller, either feeling patronised, or baffled by the language being used? I know I have; I’m sure many of you, also.

Recently, we attended a performance, where the presenter telling a story, was obviously from a bureaucratic background. The long, convoluted sentences and bureaucratic language being used, switched the audience off. She also demonstrated a poor sense of rhythm and pace; each sentence began with a strong voice which tapered off, in a flurry of words, to almost a whisper.

Those sitting beyond the first few rows could not hear what was said, as the words were delivered too quickly. Around me, some rows from the front, people were fidgetting, coughing, and generally feeling uncomfortable. To the side, two men were sleeping, sitting upright. One of them snored, at regular intervals, until his head tipped over to a certain angle, whereupon he snorted and sat up, awake again. Those of us around him were in (silent) hysterics!

A woman, along from me, constantly scratched at the tag on her shirt which was obviously irritating; a lady in front of me finally found her lipstick which she’d been rattling around in her bag seeking, and began to apply it. Even though we all wanted to hear what the presenter had to say, it became very difficult. We gave up. Finally, (thankfully), the end came and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief, as we politely applauded. It was a good story — what I heard of it — spoiled by too many inapropriate words.

It would have been so much better, if the story she’d told us was couched in short, crisp sentences, in everyday language; language we, the audience, understood. None of us would have bothered about any minor, outward irritations, as we would have all been totally connected, listening to the storyteller.

The long sentences she used, were trying to tell the listeners all; not show what happened. We did not need to know all those minute details. Much of the material could have been pruned, so the story became more immediate and interesting. That way, the audience would have been on the edge of their seats, eagerly waiting to hear what happened next.

As the pace was not her normal speaking rate, her delivery was poor; at times she almost ran out of breath. We could see she was stressed by trying to get all that unnecessary information across. Had she edited her material, the audience would have had a chance to keep up with her. Vocal variety, consisted of high volume beginnings which diminished quickly, to almost a whisper and there was a total absence of pause.

There is a rhythm, associated with our everyday speech which naturally allows time, for what we are saying, to reach and be absorbed by our listeners. Great performers and speakers understand this use of pause and use it to their advantage, allowing their listeners to keep up with them and digest their words.

Pause is important. To comedians, it is an essential and measurable part of their performance. Their jokes depend on the use of timing and pause. Storytellers could well take a leaf out of their book.

Trim your stories, cutting out any unnecessary material. Speak in a clear, steady voice, that even those at the back can hear, raising the volume only to highlight a point. Through the use of pause, allow time for the audience to absorb and enjoy your words. Keep on `telling!

© Helen McKay 2000