Personal Narratives in the Speech Curriculum

Instructor: Vicki Duke

Vick teaches college Communications, and owns a Public Speaking consulting company.

This lesson will explore three ways in which personal narratives may be incorporated into the Speech Curriculum: skill development, using narrative as supporting evidence, and using the narrative form as the over-arching speech structure.

Skill Development

What makes a great speaker?

A great speaker is someone who can forge authentic connections with their audience using similarity, vulnerability, and strong delivery.

We tend to relate well to people who are like us, and can identify with those who have shared similar experiences. Personal narratives are a powerful vehicle for sharing experiences. These connections are formed when listeners identify with a speaker based on the principle of similarity.

Sharing personal stories also allows the speaker to demonstrate his or her vulnerability, a quality which is desirable in presenters. We tend to connect with those who are willing to express themselves and reveal their thoughts, feelings, and challenges.

People who speak effectively also have strong delivery skills. They vary the rate and volume of the speech throughout, emphasizing key points and pausing between main ideas, allowing listeners time to process the information.

But how do we build these skills in students? Let's explore a few options:

Exercises for Skill Development

These basic exercises are fun activities that will allow students to develop effective storytelling skills:

A. Short Personal Narratives. Have students share a favorite memory with the audience, without using notes. This can be an excellent icebreaker activity, as well as an opportunity for students to experience connecting with an audience. It also serves as an introduction to extemporaneous speaking.

B. Nursery Rhymes. In small groups, have students relate a nursery rhyme. Then have the student re-tell the nursery rhyme, imagining that his audience is:

  • a group of 3-year-old children
  • a group of non-native speakers
  • the President/Prime Minister of a country
  • a potential boss.

Vocal variety will be achieved naturally through the exercises, as well as an awareness of the importance of adapting a message to a specific audience, via delivery, language usage, and content.

C. Backwards Stories. Have students re-tell a well-known story backwards. This exercise will emphasize the importance of chronology and the logical progression of ideas toward a climax.

D. Itty-Bitty Stories. In this exercise, students re-tell a story in 30 seconds or less. The outcome of this exercise is the ability to identify central ideas and themes in a larger story, and to summarize ideas, eliminating unnecessary details. This is good practice for those wishing to become effective and concise speakers.

E. Personal Anecdotes. Mini-stories, or personal anecdotes are a good warm-up for longer personal narratives, as they encourage students to begin to share personal experiences. This gradual progression is crucial in students' comfort with self-expression, due to the emotional aspect.

Supporting Evidence

Stories are used primarily in speeches as supporting information. It is worthwhile for students to see how good stories may impact listeners, and be instrumental in shaping behavior.

The most powerful of all stories are personal narratives, as they use personal credibility that is not present to the same degree in other types of narratives.

Exercises for Understanding Personal Narrative

These exercises will help students realize the power of personal narrative:

  1. Compare the use of a personal narrative with the same story told second-hand or through third-person perspective. Discuss the differences in impact.
  2. Compare the impact of a personal narrative, with the impact of a fact, or statistic. While varied kinds of supporting evidence are necessary and effective, the personal narrative has potential for the greatest impact on listeners.
  3. Expose the students to effective speeches where personal narratives are used as supporting data.

Speech Structure

While historically the personal narrative served mainly as supporting evidence in the context of a speech, in contemporary culture speakers are structuring the speech itself in the shape of a narrative.

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