Are You Wagging Your Tall Tale

Traditional tall tales are closely associated with folklore

The contest season has begun for many Toastmasters. This Spring, Districts will feature International and Tall Tale speeches. And if you are wondering what’s a Tall Tale, or thinking of wagging one, it is a highly exaggerated, improbable story that can leave some members of your audience screaming, “liar, liar pants on fire,” – while others are questioning – could that story be true? Tell me more.

A tall tale is a narrative of events that have happened or are imagined by the speaker. It can also be a short story, actual or fictitious. It could be valid information, gossip, a rumor, a falsehood, or one big fat lie. But wagging a Tall Tale in front of an audience can be a fun experience. Like any good story, a Tall Tale should have all the elements of a speech. It should have a theme and a plot. In addition, it can include bits of humor and props to bring your story to life. Any speaker can turn one of their five to seven-minute speeches into a three to five-minute Tall Tale. All they need is an understanding of the elements that makes a speech memorable.

Traditional tall tales are closely associated with folklore. It’s a story that could include animals, men, women, children, and larger-than-life characters. If you grew up in America, I am sure you must have heard of the famous exploits of Paul Bunyan, who hollered and scared all the fish out of the rivers and streams. And the frogs that had to wear earmuffs so they won’t go deaf when Paul screamed for his breakfast. Many wild stories about Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed are excellent examples of your traditional Tall Tales written by the Brothers Grimm and Hana Christian Andersen.

In the West Indies, where I grew up, our equivalent was J O Cutteridge, whose First Primer started our conditioning in kindergarten. He even convinced us that a cow could jump over the moon and made a pig dance a jig for a fig. We learned well, and some even excelled. Many of us began as kids mimicking those nursery rhymes, telling “little white lies” or fibs. Today, some of us can twist facts into unbelievable stories with a straight face and are masters at creating “fake news.” Now I am not speaking from experience, merely observation. However, detecting their truth from fiction can be exhausting.

Toastmasters promote the telling of tall tales because they encourage speakers to let their imaginations run wild. They challenge speakers to expand their creativity and ability to become better storytellers. My introduction to Tall Tales was in 1999. That speech was entitled Hell’s Paradise. It took me to the District 4 Conference Contest, which I won. In that speech, I spoke about the micro and soft companies dominating the software markets of the eighties and nineties. I didn’t name any names. However, I am sure you got my drift. I also spoke about how their rival company behaved similarly to Adam when he was in the Garden of Eden, offering a forbidden fruit that was rotten to the core. I developed “Hell’s Paradise on the premise technology will someday take control of our lives. And look at where we are today. What was once fiction is fast becoming a reality.

Writing and delivering that speech was fun. Although I wanted to impress the judges, I focused more on entertaining my audience. When developing a Tall Tale, the way you string your ideas together for the audience to understand is most important. A good Tall Tale speech immediately grabs your audience’s attention. It should continue to keep them engaged as you build to a conclusion. Recognizable figures of speech, when skillfully placed, will impress your judges and audience. Those embellishments include hyperbole, irony, puns, contrast, and a surprising twist. But they must be delivered in good taste. Use voice modulation extensively to maintain that connection with your audience when speaking to the head, heart, and body. 

The release of tension created is essential. While it’s great to get your audience at the edge of their seat questioning, is that possible? Your next step is to give them a breather. Walk them off the cliff before you begin to wag your tale one more time. And as you close, don’t forget the story’s message or the moral of the story. If an animal is your main character, remember animals cannot speak, but they can teach us a thing or two. We speak for them to tell their stories, for their stories to become Tall Tales. Speak as your character would. Lend them your voice and let your audience fill in the missing pieces so they can become a part of the experience.         

Gathering content for your tall tale today is not as challenging as it used to be. With the advent of social media, wild stories abound. Today’s many famous and infamous heroes are known to us all, however, a word of caution. Lifting a story from social media that is overused, well-known, or controversial is usually not well-received by audiences. So be original, be bold – be authentic with your brand of style and substance. And you and your audience will have fun as you wag that Tall Tale.

Author: HenryOMiller

Henry joined Toastmasters in 1997. He is presently a member of 4 Toastmasters clubs; two in Santa Cruz and two in San Jose. He is a DTM-4. Henry is an executive speech coach, humorist, and speechwriter. He is also a musician and a lyricist​ whose speechwriting approach is similar to his approach to songwriting.

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