Many years ago I heard a talk that lifted me out of myself and stayed with me for a lifetime. The speaker was a woman named Marie DeMarco (not her real name). She was speaking to a Dale Carnegie class of about forty people. She told a simple story about her two little girls. Her purpose, which all the audience understood, was to deliver an inspirational talk. She told the story with profound feeling, and, indeed, she inspired us all.
Begin at a point in time. It is important to orient the audience. The two main elements of that orientation are time and place:
Last Saturday night, December third, my husband and I had a party at our house. We invited six couples for six o’clock cocktails to be followed by dinner at seven.
Next, set the stage. Introduce the people who are at the core of the story. Tell us enough of what is coming up so that our anticipation builds. When you do this, remember that detail is important, but not extraneous detail. It should be kept tight. Notice how the detail in this story makes the scene and the people more real:
We have two daughters: Kristen is seven years old, and Kelly is four. I dressed them up for the party: White taffeta dresses, blue ribbons in their hair, white socks, and patent leather shoes. I even took them to the beauty parlor to have their hair done. It was the first time either of them had been to a beauty parlor. They loved it and felt so special. I told my girls that the whole family had a responsibility to make sure the party went well. I would serve the food. Daddy would fix the cocktails. And they had a job, too. They would join Mommy in answering the door when the bell rang. Mommy would introduce them to the guests, and then they would take the guests’ coats upstairs and put them on the bed in the second bedroom.
My goodness, they were excited! They were all dressed up. They were beautiful. And they were playing an important role at the party.
Now, describe what happened.
The guests arrived. I introduced my two daughters to each of them. The adults were gracious and kind and said how lucky we parents were to have such good kids who would help with the coats.
Each of the guests (all twelve or so it seemed) made a particular fuss over Kelly, the younger one, admiring her dress, her hair, her pert little nose, her smile. They said she was a remarkable girl to be carrying coats upstairs at her age.
I thought to myself that we adults tend to make a big “to do” over the younger one because she’s the one who seems more vulnerable. We do it with the best of intentions.
But we seldom think of how it might affect the other child. I was a little worried that Kristen would feel she was being outshined. I looked at her from time to time, and she wasn’t smiling as Kelly was. But the party went on, and I put it out of my mind.
An hour went by. I was about to serve dinner, but I was vaguely disturbed that Kristen, my seven-year-old, wasn’t puttering around the kitchen with her sister. I realized she had been missing for about twenty minutes. I went upstairs to see where she was. I checked her room. I checked the room with the coats. Then I opened the closed door of the master bedroom and there she was, standing in front of the full-length mirror, pirouetting, looking at herself. She had tear tracks on her face. She had been crying.
I said, “What are you doing, my dear?”
She turned to me with that empty, sad expression and said, “Mommy, why don’t people like me the way they like my sister? Is it because I’m not pretty? Is that why they don’t say nice things about me as much?”
Then she ran to me, put her arms around my legs, and burst into tears. She was crushed, and I was soon hurting as much as she was. I couldn’t stand seeing my seven-year-old daughter so devastated. I tried to explain. We talked for fifteen minutes, and I held her. I kissed her. I hugged her. Then I had to go back downstairs to my guests. But I vowed to myself that I would never make the same mistake when dealing with other people’s children.
The message comes at the end of the talk. It should be short and crisp. A good inspirational message should flow naturally out of the story. It has no real value in itself. Its value comes from the story that precedes it; we don’t preach. We don’t have to turn it into an action step, though we can if the situation demands it. The message is the lesson we learned.
The objective of your talk should be to lift the audience to a new level of understanding, to inspire them with the story so that their lives will be enlarged and changed by your experience.
Now, whenever I visit a friend’s home I make it a point to speak to the older child first, ask what she is doing in school, praise her, or dote on her. When I leave the house, I want that older child to feel how truly special he or she is.
I do this because I know the younger ones will get their share of attention. And I know, just as surely, the older ones won’t. And we should make a point to give it to them, not by neglecting the little ones but by deliberately giving the older ones more than their full share.
Notice how you the reader are moved by the story. The people seem real. You can identify with them. It is a simple story, which appeals to your nobler motives and changes your perspective from that moment on.