Captivate Them

Making Speaking Magical: part 3

When you captivate their heart, you capture their mind

Good communication means telling a good story. Stories engage the mind, creating incredible activity as the brain attempts to build the scenario in our imagination; but more than that, stories engage the heart and soul. 

Captivating them is all about emotions. If you can get your audience to feel something, you're creating something magical. 

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou
Aristotle, 384 - 322 BC

Aristotle, 384 - 322 BC

Aristotle - yes, the Greek philosopher (who apparently had no eyeballs) - introduced us to the basics of engaging an audience effectively. In his essay, “On Rhetoric” he labelled three foundational tenets to communicate with confidence: Ethos (credibility), Logos (logic), and Pathos (emotion).

Throughout these seven tricks of making speaking magical we will touch on all three, but today let’s focus on Pathosthe emotional bond between a communicator and the audience.

I know it won’t be difficult to convince you of the importance of this trick because you experience this every day.

When you watch a movie with a great story it will captivate you, moving you in some way. Like when The Notebook ignites your passion, causing you to say through tears along with Noah Calhoun, “It still isn’t over!” Orrrr, when the Guardians are in danger of not defending the galaxy and you find yourself jumping from joy to fear to anger while the sick soundtrack carries you through to the end. 

You flip through your social media feeds and stop at whatever is telling you the best story. It's a news piece, or a celebrity death, a friend’s adventures oversees, or an guy trying to get free Chicken Nuggets from Wendy’s. You stop and explore and remember because you embrace their story. 

You are picking up your kids at school, you’re on a break at work, having a meal with friends, you're trying to post something for your business online, or your delivering a speech from stage; 

the best way to engage the people around you is by telling a good story.

(Seriously, it doesn't even have to be 'great'. With stories, even 'good' will be remembered. But if you want to learn how to tell GREAT STORIES, keep reading)

The best storytellers bring you right into their world. You find yourself smiling, nodding, leaning forward in your seat. They have told you just enough to help you experience the same emotions they were experiencing in the moment. These storytellers need only a moment to capture your mind while transforming the way you feel about them and their subject.

"Your job is to make the audience feel like your story is their story." - Margot Leitman, Long Story Short

Imagine you had the ability to captivate your audience with an idea that changes the way they feel about themselves and others. 

Imagine you could communicate in such a way that your story now becomes part of their story. 

Wouldn’t that be magical? 

As with all of these tricks, there is certainly an element of natural ability to great storytelling, but I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t also believe that it is never too late to learn some new skills. 

Here's four simple techniques you can develop to immediately become a great storyteller:

Paint the Picture

Think of a stage play. The curtain goes up and you are brought into another world immediately. When my mom starred in Shirley Valentine (a one-woman show), the excitement in the room was tangible as the curtain rose on the 2nd act. All of a sudden, Shirley isn’t in her drab smock, cooking in a grease-stained kitchen, but she is laying on a beach in Greece, with the hot sun beating down on her. The audience knows immediately, Shirley has changed just like we hoped she would.

If you can help us enter the setting with a few critical details, we’ll believe the story is possible, and place ourselves into it.

Instead of saying, “I was at work last week, when my co-worker…”, say “I work in an office space sponsored by the color beige" or,  "In our office, the cubicles are set up to make us feel like rats in a maze searching for cheese, or rather, the break room vending machine" or,  "It was a beautiful day outside, which I knew because the sun was breaking in through our one shared window, as my co-worker decided to…”

With a few added details the listener can now paint a picture of exactly what the environment was like when this story happened. 

Now, the problem with this (and the three techniques below) is giving too much detail, using way too many unnecessary words and boring the audience rather than captivating them. Try inserting one detail that sparks another one of the senses. Don’t just help us imagine what we would see, make us smell the apple pie, tell us some about the sirens and traffic sounds, when you hit the ground/wall/counter/fist was it rock-hard or cloud-soft? 

If you are able to confidently set up the scene well, we will enter into the story and experience it with you. 

Create the Characters

We fall in love with characters we feel like we know. So help us see the other characters in your stories as you see them, help us know them as you know them. A name and relationships (Steve, my brother) isn't enough to captivate us, we need you to create characters with character.

One of my favourite stories to tell involves pirates, a rope and harness, nearly falling to my death, and two other guys named Jordan and...well to be honest I forgot the other guy's name. When I tell the story I briefly describe them as the celebrities they remind me of, Justin Timberlake and Shia LeBoeuf. Immediately, the audience has the ability now to see them and their personalities. 

When you create characters with character we begin to see the story through your eyes. 

You can add character to your characters by giving them a little bit more than a name. If he always wore flannel-plaid, call him ‘lumberjack’, maybe she wears too much make-up, instead of calling her ‘Kathy’ (someone we cannot picture like you can), call her ‘lipstick’ in your story. We get an immediate visual when you say ‘lipstick’ or ‘lumberjack’, just like you do when I say Shia, or Timberlake. 

Tease the Tension

My brother is a screenwriter. He understands characters, setting, plot lines, twists, and all the things that make up your favorite movies. Yet, when I asked him what it takes to tell a good story he said "tension". (Btw, you can listen to my interview with Tomas Street on the Made For This podcast here). 

He said, all you have to do is have a) your main character, b) something opposing them, and c) something they need to accomplish. If you can build that tension, you have your audience hooked.

Next time you tell a story about sitting around a table with friends, or your car breaking down, or camping in the woods. Don’t just tell us what happened, begin by building the tension of the situation for us. Were there people that didn’t get along around that table? Were you trying to get to a job interview when your engine began smoking? Did you already have fears about the dangers of camping? 

If you are able to build the tension, we will want it to be resolved as much as you did. 

Proclaim a Powerful Punchline

We often think of punchlines only working with a joke, but frankly not all stories are funny. Some of the most powerful stories communicated are those that stir fear, sadness, or anger within us. In those cases, the punchline is not said with the expectation of an explosive belly-laugh, but is delivered as a concluding message to a journey we just embarked on. 

Think of a punchline as a powerful proclamation, a strong statement, a clarifying conclusion, a sentence to get your audience to nod their heads and embrace why you just told the story. If they have entered into the story, if they understand the characters and they are satisfied with the resolution of the tension, then your punchline will put the words into their minds they are already trying to form.

If you proclaim a powerful punchline, we will remember the story as a complete package. 

The difficulty is in balancing on the edge of cheesey-after-school-special kind of summary statement, and a motivational message that your audience will write in their notebooks or Tweet out to the their followers immediately. It could be one key line that your character said. Or it could be a popular phrase from a poem or the Bible, or something your mother said.

When you create your punchline, do not think of it as the moral of the story but rather as the message from this moment. You don’t want to tell people how to think, you want to help them embrace how they feel, so when they recall the story later on they remember what they are supposed to do now with newly sparked emotions. 


We are captivated by stories because we have a shared story. 

We have shared experiences and shared emotions. Your audience may not have travelled where you have travelled but they can understand the feeling of adventure and nervousness you felt while backpacking through India. 

Your audience probably has never been in your grandmother’s house to smell the moth balls mixed with pasta sauce, but they can embrace the deep joy felt when comfortably sitting around a table with family. 

With Pathos you are not trying to shape what they think, but how they feel. As a kid, we all thought about having a love potion, that would change the way someone felt about us. Right? I believe stories can carry that kind of power.

You already have the stories within you, use them to transform others by telling them well.