Even if I live in Italy and Halloween is not part of our traditions, I’m happy to embrace it. Who does not like having an excuse to buy candy and watch horror movies? This year, Netflix helped me to get ready for Halloween with a new series: The Haunting of Hill House, loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s book. Even if I spend half of the time hiding behind my fingers to avoid splatter scenes, I am in love with good horror movies. When I have started one, I am not able to stop watching. But why is horror so appealing? When I asked this question to my best friend and teacher, Mr. Google, I found a good answer in a post by Now Novel blog, named How to Write a Horror Story: 6 Terrific Tips.
No, I’m not currently planning to write a horror speech – even if it could be an interesting experiment. Still, some of the tricks & treats listed in the article may apply also to the preparation of a speech.
If it is horror, why aren’t we horrified?
Logically thinking, we shouldn’t be attracted by something that scares, disgusts or shocks us. Instead, horror stories are very popular. Why? We tend to feel more engaged every time a story refers to a common feeling, that we have experienced ourselves. In case of horror stories, this feeling is fear. And who has not experienced fear? We may have never been in a place like Hill House, an old mansion full of hallways and closed doors. Nevertheless, it happened to all of us to be in a situation in which we don’t know the environment and can’t make sense of what is happening. So, we can relate to the feeling of the Crain children, overwhelmed by what’s happening in their new house.
Even if you don’t want to scare your audience, you can apply the same mechanism to engage them in your speech. When you select your topic, the obvious question you ask is: what do I want to tell them? To this, add a second one: what do I want them to feel? When you choose from the spectrum of human emotions, make sure you tap into something they can relate to. Whether it is frustration, embarrassment or satisfaction, start your story with a picture that makes them re-live this feeling. Your character may be waiting for the result of a job interview, bumming a speech delivery during an important meeting, or receiving a well-deserved promotion at work.
Why is it always raining?
The concentration of thunderstorms in horror stories would baffle any expert of meteorology: how is it possible, that it is always night, raining or (even better) raining at night? Why are all the secondary characters always looking scared and restless around the mansion? And what about the gloomy music that echoes in the dark halls? In the 10 episodes of The Haunting of Hill House, we rarely see a ray of sun or a smiling face for more than few seconds. This setting is consistent throughout the entire story – essential to prepare the soil for fear. It keeps the audience in a perpetual state of discomfort. We know that something is not right, even when apparently there shouldn’t be anything to worry about.
So, you have chosen the atmosphere for your story and drawn the perfect introduction to immerse your audience in it. What now? After the first anecdote, in many cases we tend to switch to our standard style for the body of the speech, as we focus mostly on the development and explanation of the topic. Usually we go back to the initial scenario during the conclusion – at least if you like pizza-structure and circularity. Instead, horror stories show how to use a consistent tone, that keeps the audience in the same mood we have set at the beginning.
In a speech, you can do it by using rhetorical or sound devices. Let’s go back to the candidate waiting for an answer after the job interview. You can use a slower pace, repeat relevant words (even obvious ones, such as “wait”), or propose again images you’ve used in the introduction (what about the uncomfortable chair the candidate was sitting in waiting for the interview to start?) Thanks to these tricks, the feeling will stick in the audience’s mind, keeping them immersed in the emotional atmosphere you have created for them.
If you want them to shiver, give them a shake
We’re walking in the hallways of Hill House together with the Crain children. Maybe because of the ancient look of the house or maybe because of the gloomy music, the long line of doors that culminates in the infamous red door gives us a continuous feeling of discomfort. But we are watching a horror movie, discomfort is not enough: we want to be frightened, to jump from our couch. What moves the audience from discomfort to fear, in general, it’s the unexpected. The red door has always been closed, the hallways were always empty… but suddenly the door is open and there are ghosts appearing here and there!
If you maintain a uniform atmosphere across the speech, the audience gets used to it. Maybe too much used to it. Before you deliver the key message, you want to make sure they are paying full attention. You don’t have to scare them: a plot twist or another surprise effect will do the work.
Let’s imagine again your candidate after the interview. The audience has spent half of the speech through the phases of his frustrating wait for a call back. It’s time to deliver the key message: instead of waiting for something to happen, you should be proactive and pick up the phone to follow-up. But, before, let’s give the audience a heads-up. You can use a plot twist: he receives a useless phone call, that wakes him up from his numbness. Or you can make a swing in your delivery: move to the front of the stage, make a sharp gesture, or change the volume of your voice. It will not scare the audience, but will help to get their full attention.
Whether or not you are a fan of Halloween, trick your audience with the techniques often used in horror stories. Appeal to common human feelings, keep a consistent atmosphere during your speech, and give them a shake with surprise effects. With the tricks will come also the treat: a more engaging speech, that keeps them listening until the end.
(Image by Tama66 on Pixabay)