Classical or jazz?

Is storytelling more like classical music or jazz?  Is there a grouping of notes and turns of phrase that you hone and deliver, or just a rough outline and a sense of where you’re going, with lots of improvisation along the way?

A few months ago I was lucky enough to participate in a (surprisingly useful) communications / storytelling workshop. The workshop was led by two people: a political consultant who works with politicians on their public speaking; and a former stage actor turned coach.  One of the most interesting parts of the workshop came when the political consultant described his recent work with a local politician who was, in the consultant’s words, one of the worst public speakers he had ever met.

The genesis of this conversation was a question: whether it was more effective to have a single story and stick to it, or to have a stable of stories and pick and choose from those stories depending on the person you’re meeting/the group to whom you’re speaking.

My bias is to do the latter – I just cannot have a genuine conversation, nor can I be genuine, if I am giving what feels like a canned speech.

Hence my surprise at their response, that the “one story” approach often works better.  In the particular example of the politician and his political campaign, they worked with him to develop exactly ONE stump speech that he delivered, word for word, at virtually every public speaking opportunity.  The only difference was the ask at the end: for voters, he asked them to go to the polls, to bring their friends to the polls, and to vote for him; for donors, he asked them to give, to ask their friends to give, and to vote for him.  Apparently it worked like a charm, and audiences would laugh and applaud and respond at all the same points in the speech, each and every time.

Even imagining this makes me feel pretty cynical.  Part of the reason that politicians are generally not trusted is the sense that they will say anything to get an outcome.  On the flip side, it is interesting to look at the extreme take on a situation (tell one story, tell it well, hone it to perfection) and see if there’s something to learn there.

I agree that I need to have easy access to a few stories that consistently get my message across, since the message is the point and the stories are enablers.  I need to have enough opportunity to play with and test and experiment and refine these stories to understand how and why they work in communicating my message.  This takes time, work, practice….repetition.

(To go far afield for a minute, say you’re interested in getting people to wash their hands as part of a broader hygiene campaign.  You have to test and know which messages work, which ones are memorable, which ones get people to act differently.)

It’s no different with your stories.  Your goal is to communicate and connect, and the people to whom you are speaking are listening to you because they want clarity, understanding, and inspiration.

So how much is classical and how much is jazz?  What’s worked best for you?

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3 thoughts on “Classical or jazz?

  1. I, too, am cynical about having and telling one story over and over again until I’m blue in the face. I suppose it’s good to get people on your side, but is that always the point of telling a story? Are you always trying to illicit the same reaction or mobilize people in the same way? I would think my stories mean different things for different people, and furthermore different stories touch the same person in different ways. If I gave you only one, and it left you feeling down, would you be interested in hearing more?

  2. I guess it all depends on what the audience is interesting in hearing… Do they want to hear classical or jazz?

    But than again this would mean that we know how to play both and for me that is rarely the case.

    I like to play jazz but i rehearse the classical way for every time i need to speak in front of an audience… even if that audience is a staff meeting 🙂

  3. Think of a stand-up comedian–to be effective and entertaining they need to perfect the timing and delivery of their lines. To do otherwise leaves the audience less than satisfied.

    Watch “Comedian”, a documentary on Jerry Seinfeld, for more insight into how this particular kind of public speaker designs and refines their speech for maximum effect.

    I think the question is whether a “canned” speech can be authentic (true to the speaker’s intention). And whether it’s politics or comedy, I feel it is possible. I don’t think re-delivering prepared material necessarily makes it less authentic.

    The receiver, consumer or audience always has the burden of needing to watch for fallacies, deceptive rhetorical devices, etc. (refer to Schopenhauer’s 38 stratagems in “The Art of Controversy”).

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