Monday, October 22, 2007

speechwriter secrets: storytelling

How do you tell a story? That's especially important for speakers -- whether you're at a cocktail party, in a meeting, or in front of an auditorium full of listeners. If you're a parent, says speechwriter Jeff Porro, you've already got the technique down. We've asked Jeff to contribute to our "speechwriter secrets" feature, a periodic look at how to improve your public speaking with tips from those who write speeches for the best speakers. Here's his take on storytelling:
- Start with something you know your audience understands. For speeches, that means starting your story with a reference that will mean something to the group you're addressing. Enviros will know about the Endangered Species Act; patient advocates might not, for example.

- Set up a conflict quickly. Stories with conflict draw in kids and audiences, too.

- Stock the story with obvious heroes and villains. In a speech, setting up heroes and villains not only entertains, it also helps to win the audience over to your point of view.

- Don't forget the sticking point. If you're using the speech to make an argument, you need one telling fact or detail that will resonate with the audience, and stick with them. "This research will help 100 million Americans struggling with incurable medical conditions...."Invasive species are destroying a million acres of our national wildlife refuges every year".... Etc.

- A happy ending: You always have one for your kids, of course. It's a little trickier in a call-to-action speech. You want the audience to believe there CAN be a happy ending, but only if they do what you want them to do: lobby for more money for national parks, support a certain kind of cancer research, or even vote for a candidate.

what it means to be eloquent

Puzzling out what it means to be eloquent means fitting together and pulling apart many pieces. The American Heritage Dictionary definition divides eloquence in two parts: "persuasive, powerful discourse" or a speech or look that's "vividly or movingly expressive." Roget's Thesaurus gives us three more takes: "exceedingly dignified," "fluently persuasive and forceful," and "effectively conveying meaning, feeling or mood."

So the books suggest there's more than language to it--while fluent's required, the speaker must persuade or convey meaning effectively. Power's involved, to move the audience or create a vivid picture for them. And feeling's suggested, on the part of both audience and speaker. In our discussion on LinkedIn asking for examples of eloquent woman and the qualities that make them so, respondents noted the following qualities:
- Authenticity, exemplified by Doris Kearns Goodwin. "She completely captured her audience, despite the fact that she read from notes, spoke fairly quickly and in a quiet voice...because she knew exactly what she wanted to say, had an interesting topic, and knew how to be herself in that venue." Another respondent agreed: "[she]doesn't seem dynamic; actually, reads from notes and too fast at times. But the cumulative effect is emotional and inspiring, and in the end she gets standing ovations. That's magic."

- Passion with precision, exemplified by Claire Fraser Liggett, former head of The Institute of Genomic Research, now at the University of Maryland. A respondent said she is "most passionate about the importance of research and genomics to human health...especially for the poorest nations. She conveyed in a most clear and compelling manner the complexities of microbial genomics and what it potentially means to society."

- Fast on your feet, with wit, exemplified by Margaret Thatcher. Our respondent said: "Eloquence is contrived in a pre-written, rehearsed speech. I think the best example is someone who can be convincing, witty, and concise on the fly...[in Parliament Question Time] I never saw anything as awesome and amusing as The Iron Lady convincingly responding to direct attacks on her policies and her character with precision, wit, and clarity."
What do you think it means to be eloquent? Join the discussion here!