How to Make Your Stories More Visual (3 Tools)

Patricia Fripp once said to me, “Craig, people will not remember what you say as much as they will remember what they see when you say it.” In other words, we have to make our speeches very visual in order to have the deepest impact. Here are 3 ways to accomplish this:

1. Put your audience members somewhere in your scene

Storytelling is not about re-stating what happened. It is about reliving what happened and inviting your audience into your “re-living room.” For example, take a look at the following excerpt from one of my speeches:

If you had been sitting beside my wife and me, on our old beat up black leather sofa, with the chocolate chip cookies baking in the background, you would have heard my wife say something that can absolutely change your life.

Question: Where are you in my scene?
Answer: You are sitting on the sofa beside my wife and me.

I set the scene up so that you are actually in it, hearing what was said and re-living it with me. Re-stating (narrating) always puts your speech in the past. However, when you put your audience into your re-living room, it is as if they are actually in the present as the story unfolds. Here are some other ways I bring audience members into my scene:

  • “Imagine being in my passenger’s seat as I drove up to the KFC (you are in my passenger’s seat)…”
  • “If you had picked up my phone in the year 2000 you would have heard (you are on my phone)…”
  • “You should have been with my wife and me as we took our 6 month old daughter Tori to the doctor’s office (you are walking into the doctor’s office with us)…”
  • “If you had been walking towards me in the Chicago airport…”

Important note: You do not always have to make bringing them into the scene the first thing you do in the story. Sometimes I introduce characters and tap into my audience with a question before I actually bring them into my scene. However, when you put a story together, always ask, “Where in my scene will I place my audience members?”

Another important note: Do not keep using the same phrase each time you bring your audience into your scene. For example, if you keep saying, “If you had been walking with me…” or “If you had been sitting with me…” or “If you had been standing with me…” your audience will tire of it and the technique will be too detectable. I see this all the time now. The key is to mix it up. In one scene, if you say, “If you had been with me…” then, for the next scene use, “Imagine being in a smoky hotel room…” For the next scene you might say, “I wish you would have been there…” Find different, creative ways to put your audience members into your scenes.


2. Check the VAKS

When you create a scene, it is important to engage your audience members’ senses. VAKS stands for Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Smell. When you invite your audience members into your scene, you want to make sure these VAKS are present. Here is the same excerpt from my sofa speech. Read it and then answer the questions below it.

If you had been sitting beside my wife and me, on our old beat up black leather sofa, with the chocolate chip cookies baking in the background, you would have heard my wife say something that can absolutely change your life.

Visual question: What could you see in that scene?
Answer: The black sofa.

Auditory Question: What could you hear?
Answer: You could hear my wife. That is why I specifically used the word heard so that I could reach the auditory learners.

Kinesthetic question: What could you feel?
Answer: My audiences usually say, “I could feel the leather.” Sometimes they say, “I could feel the love.” I usually respond with, “Love and leather always go together.” LOL.

Smell question: What could you smell in my scene?
Answer: The cookies. In fact, you might even have been able to taste them, which of course is another sense. So I checked the VAKS in this story. Make sure you do the same with your scenes.

Two Important Caveats about Checking the VAKS
Make sure you set your scene quickly so you do not take away from your story. If you drone on and on about the VAKS, you will lose your audience because you will not get to the conflict (the hook) of the story fast enough.

Also, try not to make the VAKS too poetic. Poetic is fine for a novel, but a speech needs to sound more realistic. In other words, use words you would use in everyday conversation, as if you are talking to a friend.


3. Give your characters a hint

Your characters are the stars of your speech and it is difficult for an audience to connect with characters they cannot envision. The key as a speaker is to just give a hint to what your characters look and act like. For example, listen to the following 37-second excerpt from one of my stories:

How do you see her in your mind? “Petite lady” and “pink dress” are just small hints that give the audience momentum to start mentally filling in the rest of her image. That is the key. In order for your audience to own a piece of your character, they need to create part of that character. If you give too much descriptive information, you take away your audience’s ownership. People buy into what they help create, so let them buy into your characters by co-creating them. On the other hand, if you provide little information (i.e. no hint) your audience will not have much to go on and so they probably will not see anyone in their mind.


Here are several creative ways to give a hint for what a character looks like

Give it in dialog: You can have one character say, “Oh wow, I like the new look. When did you become a blonde?”

Give it in posture: Give your character a certain posture or specific gestures while he or she speaks. For example, for the old homeless lady I have in one of my stories, I take a posture that is slightly bent at the waist and speak almost as if I am lecturing in a grandmotherly way. Your audience will remember what they see so make sure you take on the physical characteristics of your character.

Give it in the voice: The way your character sounds will help your audience see him or her. When you talk to someone on the phone that you have never met, you probably form a picture of that person in your mind, right? The voice helps.

I have a story about when I am 10 years old and I run into a man I call Mr. H. Mr. H is a father of one of my friends and I give his lines in a slightly raspier voice than normal. Of course he also takes a posture of an authority figure in my life at that time. Later on in the story, as I fast-forward 18 years, it becomes rather amusing that I now take the authority stance as I tower over him when I speak. The voice I give him helps my audience picture him because they probably have people in their lives who speak like him. I do not care exactly how they see him; I just care that they do see him.

One Caveat Regarding Posture and Voice:
Do not go overboard with the posture or with the voice. It is distracting and annoying when a speaker takes on the character of a child and speaks in the child’s high-pitched voice. Instead, make everything subtle. You can speak in a slightly higher pitch and you can look up slightly too as a child would when speaking to a standing adult. The actual use of words and expressions in your eyes can be that of the child but there is no need to take on that child’s actual voice. Remember, the eyes tell the story.


Use Dialogue to Give a Hint about Your Character’s History or Attitude  

At times it’s important for the audience members to know something about your character’s history or even his or her attitude. For example, listen to this quick 105 second audio (from a speech I gave to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development) about my friend Steve. See if you can find out something about him.

So, what did you find out about Steve? You know he’s positive, right? But did I say, “Steve, my positive friend and I talked one day…”? No, I described him in dialogue by saying, “Steve, you’r positive…tell me something…tell me anything!” That’s how you found out he was positive. It was dialogue, not narration.


Final thoughts
If you use these three tools above, not only will your speeches become more visual, but you will also become more visible because more and more audiences will want to see you speak. As always, keep speaking up.


Your Turn

How do you make your stories more visual? Can you give an example?



Craig Valentine

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