Where did you get your storytelling chops? (aka, skills)
I’m not sure where I got them, but I can tell you that I developed them by looking for every single opportunity to write and show people that I could write--think Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory. By volunteering to hold the pen for a political letter-writing campaign I made connections with a P.R. company that later hired me for contracts. By writing (for free) for my community newspaper, I attracted more than one job offer from executives in my neighbourhood. My first big professional promotion was a direct result of volunteer writing--a funny piece I wrote for an employee newsletter which gave me lots of positive attention and catapulted me to the executive suite.
What are the most important parts of a story, for a public speaker?
You need to make the story real for the people who are listening. It means taking abstract or general statements and making them specific. So instead of saying, “the job market is hard for young graduates today,” say, “Jackie, who graduated with a 4.0 in physics, has to settle for being a barrista until the job market turns around.” The audience can visualize a person living a real situation, rather than a fuzzy statement. You can go even farther and make the story real for the audience by including them. Simply ask, “How many of you out there are recent graduates? Raise your hand. Now keep your hand up if you’re working in the job you just spent four years preparing for.”
Another trick to make the story real for listeners in the room, if you are presenting any kind of statistics or numbers, is to express them in relation to the size to the audience or the population of the city where you are speaking. So you could say, “Every five minutes, 300 women, as many as there are people in this room, die in childbirth.” Or “Around the world 3.1 million children die of malnutrition every year—twice the entire population of Montreal.”
What's something you wish more speakers would include in their storytelling?
People! Speeches without people are boring—they’re just words. So instead of, “I travelled around the country meeting folks and I found out how much our new flexible work hours are making a difference …” say, “I travelled around the country and had an opportunity to meet extraordinary people, including a young Dad in Toronto, who is able to pick his kids up after school thanks to our new flexible work hours...”
What's something you wish more speakers would leave out of their storytelling?
- The word “folks.” It’s my pet peeve—sounds patronizing.
- Too many numbers. Use them sparingly, only if they pack a punch.
- Too many adjectives. Go for verbs. With the right verb your story can take off.
You write speeches for top executives and political leaders. What does it take to put words in someone else's mouth?
My experience is that top executives and political leaders usually get where they are because they have (most, anyway) a knack for communications. They care deeply about the words that come out of their mouths and will only utter those that they own. The challenge for the speechwriter is to provide them.
You have to channel the speaker. Get to know everything you can about him or her. Read everything they have written or speeches they have delivered. Recycle favourite expressions that have worked in the past and do the same with their favourite stories. Keep track of sounds or words they have trouble pronouncing so you can avoid them. Make friends with your thesaurus to find alternatives. Time their speeches so you can plan word counts according to requirements of the event. Find out interesting things about the audience, the venue, or the person introducing your speaker and link your speaker and their stories with the audience.
Evaluate both the performance and the speech. Attend events to see when the audience starts to fade and check their phones. If you can’t attend, watch a webcast and be brutally critical of the performance (but keep your expressed criticism light and constructive). This way you can coach the speaker and write a better speech the next time.
What's the difference when you write a speech for yourself?
If I hate it and rip it up there’s only me to start again.
Do you have a favorite speech or talk to which we can point our readers? What is it and why is it your favorite?
This speech is about what it’s like to be a communications professional in the public service and how to face some of the challenges of writing for government. The speech turned into a communicators’ love fest. The Senator delivering the speech was a former journalist and Director of Communications for a Prime Minister. The audience was a large group of government communicators. And the speechwriter also had a background in government and political communications. It was a speech that was an affirmation and made people feel good.
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...
I want to give a workshop on yoga and public speaking at a conference where everyone is tired of spending the day listening to people and watching boring PowerPoints. As a soon-to-be-certified yoga teacher, I could lead the group through an easy yoga flow that would benefit both speechwriters and speech givers. The stresses of being a speechwriter (say, when you get a call for changes to a speech less than an hour before an event), can be managed with the calming effects of deep yogic breathing. Yoga also teaches how to be in the moment and focus (helps when figuring out main messages), and that less is more (simplicity is the key to a good speech). And of course, as a coach of speakers, yoga is invaluable. Certain poses help improve posture, delivery, not to mention manage stagefright. People would go away from the session feeling refreshed and invigorated with new approaches to writing and speaking.
What's your public speaking pet peeve...as a speechwriter? As a member of the audience?
Pet peeve as a speechwriter:
- Subject-matter experts who, when asked to fact-check a speech, can’t resist pulling out the red pen. Sometimes they can muck up a speech by insisting on “agreed language” or adding “important background” which, at best will be technical and abstract, at worst, incomprehensible beaurocrateese.
- Speakers who discount the importance of the audience—the people in the room—in favour of secondary media coverage.
- Lack of preparation: For example, not checking out logistics (should the blinds be pulled so that the PowerPoint can be viewed?)
- A false bill of goods: the title of the speech or presentation says one thing, but the speech is actually about something else. Hmmm. Do I smell leftovers from a previous speaking gig?
- People who pace back and forth across the stage while they speak like wannabe daytime talk show hosts. I find it distracting.
- PowerPoints that are too long (see lack of preparation) so the speaker says, “let me just go through these quickly.” Really??
- Too many acknowledgements at the front end (how many people really need to be thanked? Think Academy Award acceptance speeches. Yikes!)
- Not paying attention to gender, either on panels or speaking rosters. It’s not that hard to find women speakers. Just ask. Also, it’s important to pay attention to gender if there is a Q&A after the speech. First come, first served might not be equitable as men tend to be quicker at raising their hands.
Good public speaking is a form of theatre. Just as theatre in ancient Greece helped instill civic pride, a good speech can help build community. The popularity of TED Talks speaks to our thirst for good stories well told. The trick is to craft a speech that clearly and simply links the audience, the content, and the speaker. Unifying these three points creates a triangle—the strongest of structures, of the architectural and narrative kinds.