Characterization techniques for storytelling in speeches

Characterization techniques breathe life into storytelling.

They'll take your story from passive to active allowing your audience to see, hear, and feel more clearly whatever it is you want them to.

If you're telling a tale in which a character talks angrily, they'll see anger in your body language and hear anger in your voice.

Trio of wooden mannequins illustrating gesture

Characterization in body language = bold unambiguous gestures

Basic characterization techniques are fun to learn and very effective.


To identify, understand, and reproduce the distinguishing verbal and physical characteristics or mannerisms separating one character from another.

If you've listened to and/or seen a good storyteller at work, you'll know that becoming the characters in your tale is vitally important for making them appear real.

How do they do that? That's what we're going to focus on now.

Quick links

Let's begin

Most stories have, as well as a narrator, characters who talk and interact. Even if they are small 30 second tales they will still have those elements. The key to successfully telling a story, regardless of its size, is establishing credibility instantly. You do that using characterization techniques.

In my storytelling page I said if you are talking about a character being happy, sad, angry, jealous, shy etc, the way to make that believable was to "be" it.

Mastering basic characterization techniques ...

... means you need to know:

what emotions do to your body language and your voice and,

2. how to drop into and out of those emotive states very quickly to follow the flow of your story line.

Wooden mannequin

Matching mood and body language

It's easier to begin with if you concentrate on your own body. Learn to consciously know what you do when you're experiencing differing emotions for example, excited, ashamed, or confused.

Return to Top

Mirror, mirror, on the wall ...

A quick way of getting this awareness is to remember times when you experienced those emotions.

Put yourself back into the situation and holding that state, look at what your body does to express it in the mirror.

The trick is do this exercise wholeheartedly. Do it without reservation. No holding back!

Remember small or subtle changes won't communicate rapidly to an audience. This is not film. You don't have the benefit of close-ups or lingering shots. You need to convey the mood immediately and unambiguously.

Once you've established what one mood feels like; where it is centered in your body, what it does to your posture, how it reflects on your face, change it for another. Make these shifts between two opposite emotions, like 'happy' to 'sad' so the differences between them are easily observed and remembered.

Return to Top

Crossing the line

The next step is to practice shifting states rapidly.

A technique I've used successfully in classes is to draw a line on the floor.

Happy and sad icons on either side of a line

Crossing the line - from happy to sad

One side of the line, for example, is 'happy' and the other 'sad'. I have students walk toward it holding 'happy' body language and immediately they step over it they must assume 'sad'.

We start slowly and build up speed until the changes occur almost instantly.

NB: There's a page on body language here. Even though it's mostly about appropriate body language for speakers delivering a straight non-storytelling speech, if the notion is new to you, it will provide a basic introduction.

Return to Top

And now let's move to ...

Characterization techniques for voice

You know that tone, pitch, volume, and the speaking rate of words changes according to how we feel.

For example, if we're irate then the volume is likely to be raised, as is the pitch, the tone will be harsh and the rate the words come from our mouth will probably be much faster than usual.

Artistic representaton of a girl 'talking fire'

The task is to figure out how to accurately and quickly characterize mood shifts with our voice.

- Do we need to alter pitch, tone or rate of speech?
- Do we need to stress some words or parts of them more than others?
- Do we need to hold some up or pause?
- And what breathing patterns do we need to underpin their delivery?

Begin with the body

A simple way of getting into character voice is to begin with the body. Assume the emotion first and then add voice.

For example:

My character is tired and bored. I show that by slumping my shoulders forward. I let my center of gravity slip so my weight is mostly being carried through my legs. My arms may hang loose at my sides. My head is heavy on my neck and my face says, 'Yeah, so what!' I sigh heavily.

Add voice

Now speak.

Holding the body language and say whatever comes first into your mind.

Listen to hear if the emotion of your body carries through to your voice. It should sound 'flattish' and slightly held back as if speaking was an effort. If there are inflections they will tend to fall rather than rise.

Once you've heard and passed yourself as reasonably accurate for one mood - swap to another. Keep using the mirror, noting the differences as you go so you can easily return and replicate what you've done.

Return to Top

Integrating techniques into a story

To do that well, we need to refine them a little more.

Who is talking?

We need to know 'who' is doing the talking. So far we've looked at mood and how mood informs body and then voice.

Now we need to look at exactly 'who' the person is experiencing the mood.

- Are they old, young, male, female, rich, poor etc, etc.?
- What physical mannerisms (stance, habit, way of talking) distinguishes them from anybody else?

Use simple recognizable stereotypes

Characterization doesn't need to be complicated - simple is better. Try thinking stereotypes rather than 'real' people.

You need an easily identifiable gesture or body stance marking one character from another.

For example:

An older pompous man

The older rich man impressed with his own power, quite literally stands as if he were full of himself. Feet apart, chest out, and head high. He looks down on those beneath him.

A mannequin of a young flirty girl

In contrast, the young flirty girl stands with one leg behind the other, raises a hand to her brow, leans her head to one side, thrusts her chest out and sways.

Once you've found your key gesture for each character practice them. Use the mirror to help you and watch yourself go cleanly from one to another.

Adding mood & voice to character

With the characters established you are ready to add mood and voice.

In the first part of characterization techniques we focused on learning the body language for varying emotions. Now we'll deepen that.

While holding your key gesture denoting character, add an emotional state.

For example, what would the flirty girl do with her body to show anger, happiness, or sadness?

You'll need to experiment until you find what feels and looks right. Once you have, add voice.

And now you're ready to apply your characterization techniques to a story

Anything that is direct dialogue gets the characterization techniques treatment.

That means if you've got a salesman talking you become him. You also become the customer, the bystander or anybody else in your story.

You play all the characters, including yourself, the narrator, linking all the players together.

NB: As the narrator you stop acting and assume your normal speaking pose and voice.

Return to Top

Just one more tip to slip into your ...

Characterization techniques kit

Using illusion

Because you are playing two or more people as part of your story doesn't mean you need to rush all over the stage from one speaking place to another to show who is talking.

You can achieve this through illusion. For each character establish a place they look to whenever they speak or react.

For example, the salesman looks straight ahead. The girl looks up to her right and the boy looks to his left.

The audience will very quickly understand what you're doing and follow without confusion providing your transitions between characters (including narrator) are crisp and clean.

Return to Top

As with most things, practice makes perfect. These characterization techniques will add vibrancy and life to your stories. I hope you enjoy the process of getting better and better at telling them.

Related pages: