Public Speaking Tips for Personification
If we can agree that the successful outcome of a speech is when the audience walks out of the room with your key message firmly and lodged in their heads, then any technique you can use to make that message more vivid and more ‘sticky’ is going to help your cause.
I have often found myself on a judging panel for a public speaking competition and typically after all the contestants have spoken the judges meet together in a room, and add up their scores independently , so that there is no undue pressure on anyone to alter their decision and then if there is a clear outcome, everyone relaxes. Sometimes however the result is very close and it is worth discussing who we had in what order and why.
The chief judge might then go through the contestants in order:
‘So, speaker number 4, Mary. What did we think of Mary?’
And I would be sitting there thinking:
‘Mary! I cannot even remember who Mary is!’
We had only heard her half an hour before and amongst all the speakers I was struggling to recall her and what she said.
Then one of the judges would say:
‘The one who talked about the raindrops dancing on the leaves.’
And immediately I had her back in my mind!
And that is exactly what happens.
Your audience does not remember most of what you say; they might not even remember the message you were sharing, but they might remember a picture, a scene, or a story and then suddenly they find their way back to the message and then start to recall the rest of the speech.
It is like clearing out a cupboard and finding a box of your old belongings. You pick up an old paper knife that looks familiar and slowly you recall the desk where you kept it, the person who gave it to you, what they said when they gave it to you and then you think about your friends of the time and how you spent your weekends: and all because a memento has sparked a chain of recollections.
As speakers, we are inclined to bombard our audience with too much information, all of which becomes lost after the presentation. What we need to do is find one or two key clear images that act like agents anchoring and burrowing themselves into the listener’s brain, to make a strong enough impact to remain with the listener after the presentation is over and then like the paper-knife they open up a chain of connections that lead the listener back to the key message of the presentation.
And one great tool for creating such an image is through personification.
Even when we were trying to recall Mary’s speech in the judging room, what brought us back was a vivid image. Raindrops don’t dance, people dance! But by attributing human characteristics to nature, not only do we relate better to the event, we have a charming and precise image of the grace with which the raindrops bounce off the leaves and most importantly from the speaker’s point of view, she has created an image that ‘sticks’.
10 tips for Personification
To bring an abstract to life
This is probably already so ingrained in us that all I am doing is making you more consciously aware of what we do every day. We talk about:
Doubt ‘gnawing away at us’ – like some type of rodent;
Fear ‘grabbing hold of us’ – like a figure with arms
Luck ‘smiling on us’ – like a protective deity.
This works best with abstract terms, allowing us to create a vivid image to fix the idea in the audience’s mind.
The poet Keats in Ode to Autumn paints a picture of the season as a figure
‘sitting careless on a granary floor…’
’sound asleep, drowsed with the fume of poppies’.
We don’t have to be light and poetic, we could be in a team meeting talking about what you need to be to be successful in your role:
‘Success in any venture is always accompanied by Self-belief and Confidence. They are like two companions that enter the room with you. When you sit down, they sit down with you and although no one in the room can see them, everyone can feel that they are there with you.’
In Harry Potter’s greatest moment of trial, his parents appear to him, and Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker’s father appear to Luke at the end of Star Wars. We can be mystical or believe in guiding spirits, but often we are simply representing the gathering of courage or a moment of inner satisfaction in a tangible form.
Extend the image
Having introduced the idea of Self-belief and Confidence as two companions, we can reinforce the image by using it as a thread that we weave throughout the presentation; how they were absent in my early career; how I met them when I wanted to take my first major step; how they grew in strength with each successful step; how I talked to them when I was nervous; how I suddenly realised they had abandoned me after I took the wrong turn; how I knew they had returned; and now that I feel much more confident, I hardly notice them, but I always know they are always close by when I need them.
The advantage of any image that can be threaded through a presentation is that firstly, for the audience, it makes the message much easier to grasp and secondly it makes remembering the flow of the presentation much easier for the speaker.
Make it topical
School health workers will often reference something like Star Wars when explaining the reason for vaccinating an anxious child:
‘The virus we are fighting against is like the Empire’s TIE fighters attacking the Rebel Alliance command centre, the injection is like the Starfighters protecting your system from that attack.’
To dramatise the point
John Bunyan in his ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ is not too keen on the Catholic Church and personifies the institution in the image of a giant Pope:
‘grown so crazy and stiff in his joints that he can now do little more than sit in his cave’s mouth, grinning at pilgrims as they go by, and biting his nails because he cannot come at them.’
He could list all his objections to the Catholic Church as old, out of touch, menacing, but too weak to be directly threatening… or he could personify the institution as a senile, predatory old man in a cave.
And 350 years later, when grooming and abuse of power are so topical in all areas of society, the image seems even more poignant than even Bunyan intended.
To stir the emotions
‘Pathos’ is one of Aristotle’s three creative proofs – the ability to create an argument that stirs emotions.
We are social human beings and therefore simple images that portray simple violations of social norms are going to be more effective than a larger abstract description. For instance:
the government’s removal of a social security benefit or the raising of an indirect tax is not going to affect us as much as a personified government stealing food from our table or sneakily taking money out of our wallets while we are looking the other way. Removing benefits and raising taxes is an abstract act of government, while the intimacy of stealing is altogether much more personal.
Enhance your vocabulary
In Public Speaking clubs there is often an assignment under the heading of ‘Vocabulary ad Word Pictures’ and invariably when a speaker tackles this assignment lots of flowery, bombastic language comes out.
We are speakers, not poets. Less is more in a speech; clarity of message remains key.
Therefore most of our speech wants to sound natural and ‘spoken’, however, it is worth highlighting your key images relating to your key points with a little more focus.
Although not exactly a personification, when Boris Johnson referred to Keir Starmer as ‘Captain Hindsight’, he had found an image that captured all he wanted to say.
Therefore if you want to portray the government as stealing hard-earned money from your wallet, you might want to describe 'the long bony fingers of the treasury slipping silently into your pocket’.
It does not need to go further. That is enough to create a vivid platform to support your message.
Consistency will keep the imagery clear for the audience, clear and easy for you to remember and wont confuse the message. If you want to use ‘the long bony fingers of the treasury’ don’t then start talking about the treasury ‘hoovering’ up your money – that is a completely different image.
If ‘long bony fingers’ work once, it will work again and could be extended.
Long and bony are more likely to be able to slip into a pocket unnoticed than short and fat ones.
Long and bony might suggest old, greedy, mean.
Inconsistent imagery can confuse. Consistent is clear.
Keep the connection with reality
Long bony fingers plucking gold pieces from your pouch may make the point, but is more like an allegory or a fairy tale, whereas long bony fingers stealing your last pound coins from your pocket is more current and realistic and therefore more literal and credible.
Yes, we want to dramatise, but we don’t want to create images that are either directly offensive or so over-exaggerated that they destroy the message that they were intending to transmit. Therefore references to concentration camp commanders, sex offenders, or, for that matter, ‘Satan’ need to be carefully handled, firstly in terms of the sensibilities of the audience and secondly when they are so overstated that they move from dramatising to ridiculous.
A friend of mine who runs debating classes says there is an understanding that when a speaker uses
‘worse than Hitler’ in an argument they have moved out of the realm of credibility and into the realm of the hysterical.
Plan and Practise
Think of a personification or any attempt at creating a vivid image like trying on clothes.
Does it look good? Does it do the job? Does it send the right message? Are there any implications or associations that I have not thought about? Does it stand out well? Can it bear the full load of the message that I am trying to put across? If it can you have a valuable tool with which to deliver your message.
Personification is your friend!
They will stand at your shoulder waiting to help.
Choose well and they will make you look and sound good.
….and that is personification!