Writing process

“Set” the mood for your story

Greetings from my living room couch

We bought the couch a few years ago as a luxury item, but now it sits as the lone, worn-out piece of furniture in a living room that can fit about 15 people. Normally I would be sitting across from the TV, but I could never hear it over the traffic outside, so we moved it into the bedroom. Now all I have is a 3x3 foot painting of a floral design on a 12 foot wall. If you stare long enough, you can see the outline of a dog who looks ready to play. We decided to add a little color to that wall by having the bottom half painted turquoise, but the painter only treated us to one coat of paint. An apartment made for comfort and prestige now boasts a squeaky reclining sofa, sloppy turquoise brush strokes on an empty wall, and a perpetual grand prix of motorcycles, buses, and delivery trucks in the street outside.

How is that for a description? What do these features tell you about the room, and about the world I live in? We planned our lives with high hopes, but so far have not accomplished much. You don’t see any tragedy, just short-term futility with a sense of humor. The scene doesn’t spell total defeat, but rather, “You’re not there yet.” Any other features that don’t describe the mood or build anticipation for the coming story don’t belong.

I can also tell a very positive story using the same setting. The room has a lot of charm. I use it as my personal home gym, with plenty of space for agility rings. We have really cool LED recessed lights that glow when you turn them off. The empty room gives an echo that makes music sound great. Even though we have a security door outside the building, the windows are covered with iron bars that I sometimes squeeze through in order to entertain my students during virtual classes.

This second description gives you a much different picture than before. Now you see a playhouse for a 45 year-old man-child, which doesn’t leave much potential for conflict to tell a good story.

When you tell a story, you want to choose the elements that establish the mood. In this case, we begin with setting. If you have a story where the setting matters most, pick only the details that support your narrative.

If the scene is cold, the temperature must play a role in the story. If you’re walking down a long desolate road, then that road must symbolize a long journey, or at least leave you with blisters on your feet. If it’s early in the morning, then the characters have to be tired, or the streets must be empty. The details of the setting must tell the story. If not, then you are only showcasing your writing ability at the expense of clarity. 

If your audience has to memorize meaningless details, then they can’t follow the story.

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Think of the two most successful horror movie franchises

Is there a movie called “Freddy Krueger Kills People?” No. It’s the picket fences of Elm Street that make the story so scary. Due respect to Eddie Murphy, the term Vampire in Brooklyn is kind of a redundancy in terms. Extra cool points if you caught that. Freddy’s rival, Jason Vorhees, needed seven sequels to finally reach Manhattan. Jason took most of his revenge at Camp Crystal Lake, a serene New Jersey summer getaway and his final resting place after he drowned at age eleven. As the song goes, “You’re deep in love, but you’re deeper in the woods.” The setting tells the story.

One more setting

Let’s take this back to the fitness world. Imagine you have an audience of two dozen personal trainers and want to share war stories from the gym. Every piece of equipment has a story behind it. Somebody tried to strip the plates one side at a time from the bar on the squat rack that was in front of a row of mirrors. Someone couldn’t step away from the dumbell rack for that all-important set of front raises. Another client insists on walking on treadmill number 17, even though it’s in front of the TV that has a fluorescent light directly above it. These little details are a story within themselves. 

Your audience relates to you when you paint a familiar scene 

To get some practice, take a look around the room that you’re in right now.

Open your notebook, or a Word document (I prefer to handwrite my ideas first), and describe everything around you. Use the opening paragraph of this article as an example. What would happen in an environment like this?

Write down everything that you see. Include the furniture, the lights, decorations, doors, windows, size, colors, and the noise. What do these details tell you? If you went to work tomorrow and told a story about something that happened in that same room, which features would help you tell the story? What would you leave out?

If you want a next-level challenge, go outside and try the same thing. Look at your property, your neighborhood, or even city. How can the backdrop enhance the story?

And now, the plug

In the FIT Presenter Master Speechwriting Course, we look in depth at setting, including examples from popular songs over the past 70 years. Think of "Under the Boardwalk" by the Drifters. The setting tells the entire story. On the boardwalk, we get the summer heat and the smell of hot dogs, and French fries. Meanwhile, under the boardwalk ... (photo not available).

You can find more uncensored examples of songs that tell a story through setting in the Master Speechwriting Course. I hope to see you there!

Editor's note: The snake-like object that you see at the end of the video is my belt, which got caught on the crossbar. I removed it and slid through the window. We did not, repeat, did not "finish the class" early.

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Writing process

Grisham or Gladwell?

Do you know how to keep a reader in suspense? 

I suppose you want me to tell you. Sure, I’ll tell you in just one minute.

When you begin a speech, your audience holds their breath waiting for you to speak. As you continue, they wait for the point you’re trying to make. How long do you want to keep them on the hook? Here we look at two ways to resolve the audience’s tension.

Masters of suspense

A modern-day master of suspense is John Grisham. If you ever have a long layover in an airport, a Grisham novel will hold your attention so much that you might miss your flight. He keeps you in suspense, and then you find out exactly whodunit or how they solved the crime. And then it’s over. No more suspense, mystery or conjecture. Grisham novels are a perfect puzzle, and leave you with a perfect picture of the story.

The incomplete puzzle

On the other end of the spectrum is Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for the New Yorker magazine and one of the great modern-day philosophers. Gladwell leaves you with more questions than answers. He calls his style the incomplete puzzle. To understand a Gladwell piece, you have to go back through it a few times to figure out the message. His feature articles won’t entertain you like a Grisham crime drama, but he will challenge your thinking long after you finish reading.

When you present an idea, how much do you want your reader or your audience to know at the end? Grisham and Gladwell each have their own place in your speeches, lectures, and workshops.

First lesson in politics -- dodge the question

Your audience will have complicated questions and expect simple answers. This demands Gladwell’s incomplete puzzle. 

My favorite oversimplified question is, “How many reps and sets should I be doing?” Do NOT answer the question! 

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That is a novice question for people who only do bench press and preacher curls. The question about reps and sets tells me that he reads muscle magazines, but doesn’t train the way bodybuilders do. He doesn’t want the complicated formula that measures time under tension and overall force. He wants a short answer that does not exist (I’m not dismissing women here, only a man would ask that question). 

The best way to satisfy someone’s curiosity is to trigger more curiosity. I like to say, “If that question had a simple answer, we would be done already.” Then you have some leeway to add more information.

Talk about compound exercises that can’t be counted as easily. Add exercises that have more explosive movements. Your answer will disappoint them initially, but if they pay attention to your answer you will empower them to explore the gym with more confidence. 

So, um, like, which machine should I …

The same principle applies for calorie burn. During your tenure as a trainer or coach, someone will ask you, “Which machine burns the most calories?” We all know that the machine that burns the most calories is the one that you use the most, but she (payback, ladies, payback) doesn’t want to hear that. She is looking for a camping spot in the gym and wants you to point her there so she can watch the Biggest Loser on the mini-flat screen TV mounted on the machine. Before you revert to your personal trainer’s safe space and recite averages based on basal metabolic rate, tap into her curiosity. Talk more about performance goals rather than simple calorie burn. Then you can inspire her instead of give an answer that she doesn’t like.

Erase all suspense, and doubt

The Grisham approach works best when telling a story. You want your audience to know exactly what happened and how the story ends. There should be a clear lesson in your story, and your audience should be able to retell the story exactly as you told it. This is the final part of the FIT principle. Transfer the lesson so your audience can reteach it. A clear and decisive ending makes the story more memorable. I read “The Client” over 25 years ago and I can still tell you where Barry the Blade buried the body. Would you like to know?

Use both types

An outstanding presentation blends the conclusive storytelling of John Grisham with the meandering road to nowhere led by Malcolm Gladwell. This way, you leave your audience as curious as they are informed and inspired.

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Writing process

Find a counterbalance

As I type this, I am listening on YouTube to one of my favorite speeches ever delivered. 

I suggest you look for the video "Mr. Rogers goes to Washington." The US Senate convened a hearing in 1969 to decide on funding for public television. The Senate Communications Committee was treated to two days of testimonial threats, accusations, rants, and outright begging for $20 million in federal funding. Committee chair Sen. John Pastore was unimpressed. Just before they were ready to vote, along came Fred Rogers, host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and narrator of my early childhood.

 What do you do with the mad that you feel?

In six short minutes, Mr. Rogers turns a gruff veteran senator into the Neighborhood’s biggest fan and secures the funding. He never raises his voice, confronts or accuses anybody. He disarms Sen. Pastore, by appealing to his deep concern for children.

 Any time that I prepare a text, or a speech, I pull up the video of Mr. Rogers goes to Washington for inspiration.

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See a resemblance?

If you ever hear me speak, you’ll notice that I sound nothing like Mr. Rogers. I choose him as a role model because he is as close to my polar opposite as I can find. As you create your identity on stage, you should have someone to emulate. Neither you nor I invented the craft of public speaking. We all have a role model. It could be a professional speaker, a comedian, a preacher, or politician. Once you find that one person, make sure you find a counterbalance.

This is MY neighborhood!

My number one speaking role model is Craig Valentine, the 1999 world champion of public speaking. When I first played his CD of speeches and speaking tips, I said, “That guy!” The energy, the humor, and the inspiration drove me to produce better content, and drove me through many red lights while listening to his CD.

A few years later, I met him in person and realized, “That guy -- is crazy!”

He paces and fidgets and bugs his eyes out more than I do. If I multiplied his intensity by my energy, the audience would spontaneously combust. After the conference, I went home and pulled up a Bob Ross painting video to get my heart rate back to normal.

I love to roast him, but seriously folks ...

Craig is the main reason that I’m writing this blog now. He wrote and taught the World Class Certified Speaking Coach course that launched the FIT-Presenter coaching service. During a recent virtual class, I had a chance to tell him about the time we met, and that I listen to Mister Rogers after every call. Although I've never heard Craig talk about his counterbalance, you can see it in his influences too. He sounds like a gospel preacher on stage, yet credits a middle-aged prim and proper English woman named Patricia Fripp as his greatest speaking coach. If you ever have a Zoom call with Craig Valentine, you’ll see that he has a Martin Luther King portrait and a Bruce Lee figurine behind him.

(I have a dream … to be like water.)

Your influences should be as diverse as your audience. That diversity should include ethnicity, generation, personality, and subject matter.

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How much variety of influence do you have?

As a high school wrestling coach, I can channel Craig Valentine for my locker room pep talk, but in front of the parents, I have to shift into Mr. Rogers mode. As a teacher, I have a more coddling demeanor in front of pre-teen students than I do with adult learners. In my early days as a Toastmaster, I channeled my favorite comedian, George Carlin. His delivery style and emphasis on writing over performance won me a lot of praise from my club. Unfortunately, my only speeches back then were loaded with opinions, a la George. Once I ran out of opinions, I ran out of material. It wasn't enough to draw from the same well every time. I had to look for more compassionate speakers and better storytellers to expand my material. For every emotion that you want to provoke from your audience, look for another role model. The more people you follow, the less likely that you will imitate any of them.

And, for the well-deserved cheap plug:

To diversify your influences even more, visit www.craigvalentine.com and www.patriciafripp.com

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Gym trainer with notebook
Writing process

The Graveyard

Where do you keep your ideas?

By now you have gone deep enough into the Fit Presenter rabbit hole that you can consider yourself a speechwriter. You want people to know what you know, and you want to inspire them. You can envision yourself on stage blending science with storytelling, academics with anecdotes, and techniques with tales from the gym floor.

Long before you refine a message that is ready for a public venue, you need to stockpile your best and worst ideas in a notebook.

No matter how much technology advances, nothing compares to the portability, access, and tactile stimulation of a physical notebook by the bedside. It will comfort you, it will listen to you, and occasionally it will betray you.

The notebook is your lifeline for your best ideas, and a graveyard for ideas that don’t make the cut.

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Ideas that look beautiful on paper will not meet the time frame, fall within the central message of your speech, or relate to your audience. Fear not. The content that you scratch will find their way into the next speech, lesson, or book.

Where is your notebook now?

There are two places where you should always have your notebook -- in your gym bag and next to the bed. Why next to the bed? As creativity comes from the subconscious, you wake up your dreams fresh in your mind. I once met a radio commercial writer who always started her process at 3:00 in the morning. She set her alarm and started writing as soon as she woke up. She would force herself to fill the page before going back to sleep. A few hours later when she woke up again, you can bet that she flushed most of her ideas once she read them with fresh eyes. However, somewhere in the mess was the message.

As for the gym, you hopefully don’t need to have this one explained to you. People often bring their notebooks to the gym to record their reps and sets. Why not do the same for your speech ideas? Adrenaline spurs your creativity. You know that once your client starts talking gibberish then you know their adrenals have kicked in and the warm-up is over.

Once you reach that point in a workout, some wild idea will hit you that belongs on paper and in your speech.

School’s out

When I taught the personal trainer certification course, I would always tell my students, “This course might be the first time that you have ever liked school.” The same goes for speech prep. Once nobody is telling you to do a book report or write an essay, reading and writing become fun again.

Back in high school, we had to keep a black and white marble notebook as a journal. At least I think we were supposed to. I never did. Words should never be so confined! As I racked up zero after failing grade for not keeping my mandatory collection of free thoughts in a rigid, predictable order, I also kept a folder of loose leaf papers of random musings.

Almost 30 years later, I still have the folder. I purged the self-centered teenage ramblings that would make millennials roll their eyes and kept the rest. Perhaps some of those ideas appear in my blog -- but you’ll never know. Nobody will ever know where you got your ideas, nor will they care. They only think about how your message connects to them.

A graveyard of ideas

As a speaking coach, I also serve as a bereavement counselor for ideas that die on the page. It is hard to part with an idea once you labor so hard to put it on paper.

Just remember that bad ideas make the good ideas great. The more that you delete your words twice as quickly as you write them, the more you will appreciate the editing process. Imagine if you had the same luxury with your spoken words. So many times I have wished that I could say something, look at my words suspended in air in a comic strip word balloon, and then decide what words to keep before casting a spell to send them. On paper, you can write your wildest opinions, harshest criticisms, and most pointless ideas before erasing them, never to be seen again. You will never come up with a good idea without 10 bad ones.

The resurrection

Think of the movie the Karate Kid. How does it end? Daniel assaults Johnny with an illegal kick to the face, embraces Johnny’s ex-girlfriend, and then Johnny gracefully hands Daniel his trophy. Did you know that the book ends in the parking lot? Kreese breaks a couple of windows with his fists in pursuit of the elusive Mr. Miyagi, and then the Cobra Kai kids lay their belts at Kreese’s feet. We didn’t see that ending to the first movie for two reasons. One, the movie ends on a crescendo if they end it with Daniel celebrating his tainted victory, and two, the movie producers knew that they could always put that scene in … the sequel!

Many of the ideas that you erase from a speech come back from the dead. When you eliminate an anecdote due to time constraints, you now have the basis for your next story. Everything that you edit out can be put into the next story, the next speech, or the next book.

Type it later

There will come a time to transfer your ideas to a word processing document, but not until you have a personal physical connection with the text. I can assure you that I put these ideas and most of the words on paper before typing them into this article. The words you deliver to an audience mean a lot more to you and capture a lot more emotion if you physically write them into a notebook first. So enjoy this digital diversion for about ten more words, then pick up a pen and paper and get started!

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