Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Inside Voice: Marcus Webb, TEDMED's Chief Storytelling Officer

(Editor's note: Inside Voice is a new interview series on The Eloquent Woman, in which we'll ask speakers, speechwriters, and storytellers to share their insights. I'm delighted to kick off the series with my client and friend Marcus Webb, who leads the storytelling operation at the TEDMED conference. I've been coaching speakers under his direction for that conference and wanted you to hear how he approaches storytelling and speechwriting. Webb doesn't limit his writing skills to speeches, but also writes screenplays. He's also a frequent tipster to this blog, and gave generous responses to my questions.)

Where did you get your storytelling chops?

Believe it or not, at the U.S. Library of Congress. Long before the Internet arrived, I spent many weekends there (we lived nearby when I was a kid). Over several years I made a deep study of speeches by everyone from Cicero to Elizabeth the first, General Patton and Martin Luther King, Jr. What I discovered was that the greatest speeches in history have a musical structure and form. They are built on theme and variation, counter-theme, a climactic reprise and a coda. They include leitmotifs and “melodies.” And that’s just the beginning...

Applying these lessons in high school public speaking contests got me the opportunity -- at age 17 -- to share platforms with Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater (addressing audiences of 10,000 people); to visit the White House and meet the president; and to pay for college with a single speech (thanks for the generous scholarship, Veterans of Foreign Wars).

Much later, I learned some additional secrets of storytelling in public speaking from my boss, Jay Walker, chairman of TEDMED.
What are the most important parts of a story, for a public speaker?
Authenticity, that much-overused word, is crucial.  Authenticity means truth plus vulnerability. Ideally a story in a speech should grow organically out of the speaker’s personal experience.  And, it should be deeply meaningful to him or her.
The story should not be something the speaker read or heard, and dragged in to make a point -- or worse, something they stuck in to emotionally manipulate the audience. Better no anecdotes than a cheesy anecdote!
Do you realize the best speeches in history (from Cicero to King) contain not a single anecdote between them? They are architecture, not argument.
Beyond that, it’s important to realize that even without using a single anecdote, you can use a “story arc” to construct a speech.
For example, you start with a hero, which can be an idea or a product you’re advocating. You open with a first act that describes the problem. You progress to a second act that describes the ideal solution. You conclude with a third act that describes an actual solution or policy or course of action that conforms to the ideal.
This is just part of what I learned from Jay Walker. My job as Chief Storytelling Officer at TEMDED is like attending a perpetual graduate seminar with “Professor Jay.”
What's something you wish more speakers would include in their storytelling?
Vulnerability, as mentioned above.  Most speakers resist being vulnerable.   They don’t like to share their failures or highlight their faults.  But doing so is what makes audiences trust them, and sometimes even love them.

What's something you wish more speakers would leave out of their storytelling?
Blarney! By which I mean, an obvious attempt at emotional manipulation, especially in the form of stories that are grafted onto the structure, simply because speakers think they have to tell stories. At worst it’s like welding a bicycle onto a 747.

You write speeches for Jay Walker, TEDMED chairman. What does it take to write for such a frequent speaker?
Occasionally I write a speech “for” Jay but more often I write a speech “with” Jay. For one thing, it takes a willingness to do lots and lots of drafts. It’s not unusual for us to go through 30, 40 or 50 drafts of any important document. But as I said, it’s a constant learning experience so I enjoy it and benefit from it.
Why so many drafts? At its best, writing is thinking. Jay uses the writing process to evolve his ideas, not just to evolve his expression of them. He is constantly searching for new and better truths.

Do you have a favorite TED or TEDMED talk? What is it and why is it your favorite?
Of those those that I helped craft, my favorites are Peter Attia’s 2013 talk and Ginnie Breen’s 2012 talk. What makes them work is the deep emotional truths that these two gifted communicators were willing to share, in the context of important and intellectually valuable messages.
Jay likes to say that a good TEDMED talk gives a “gift” to the audience. Peter and Ginnie passed that test with flying colors. Peter’s talk has racked up more than one million views on Ginnie’s speech deserves equally high numbers.

If you knew you could not fail, what kind of speech or presentation would you give? Tell us about the setting, audience, type of talk, content...
A presidential inaugural at the West Front of the Capitol Building, of course!
But seriously, folks, my favorite kind of talk to give is one that combines insight with hilarity...that informs as well as entertains the hell out of people. That’s very hard to do and I haven’t been able to do it often.
For an example of someone else giving this kind of talk, see Zubin Damania’s 2013 TEDMED remarks.  I hasten to add that this script and performance were all Zubin’s doing, not mine.

What's your public speaking pet a speechwriter? As a member of the audience?
You mean, aside from plagiarism by presidential speechwriters who blatantly and endlessly lift passages from speeches by earlier presidents, then get praised to the skies for their originality and gifted style?
Outside of that rarified circle, as a speechwriter my pet peeve is over-reliance on PowerPoint. For a hilarious example of how PowerPoint ruins a great speech, check Peter Norvig’s satire of the Gettysburg Address.
As an audience member, my pet peeve is speakers who give you a handout, then read it to you...word for word. This is particularly deadly in an office meeting where the audience can’t leave (a long series of school principals did this to my mother and her colleagues, career schoolteachers, for decades).

One more pet peeve: that tired cliché that “some things are too deep for mere words to express.” If you can’t figure out how to express it, go hire a gifted writer who can. But don’t blame the English language!

Why is public speaking worth the effort, in your view?
The best public speaking is one-man theater or one-woman theater. It is electrifying. It is a combination of revival sermon and standup comedy. It is a declaration of war, a confession of love, or both. It is Shakespearean soliloquy, a revelation of the soul, poetry in prose, music in words.
William Faulkner got it right in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man; it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

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