Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Conference notes from #uksgcam2015: Diving into speechwriting

Last week, I had a deep dive into talking, speaking, and language...and it was all about writing speeches. But that dive took many different directions at the Spring Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference in Cambridge, UK, creatively organized by Brian Jenner and deftly chaired by Alan Barker. It's one of my favorite meetings, and, like any good diver, I always come away refreshed, having seen and heard new things. Here are some of the insights I gleaned:
  • Stories aren't really digressions. They're halos: I think Hanneke Kulik gave my favorite talk at this meeting, a lyrical and playful look at whether stories are digressions from the point of a presentation or speech. She used an indelible metaphor to explain that stories are "the halo around the star" in any speech. And she bravely used the Katrina and the Waves song "Walking on Sunshine" to form a playful opening, demonstrating vulnerability and lyricism before taking us to more serious ground in a talk that deftly led its listeners into new ideas. President Bill Clinton just demonstrated the art of a seemingly digressive story in his speech at the 20-year anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which occurred during his presidency: “I prepared for this day yesterday, in New York, by taking Hillary to see our daughter and son-in-law and my about-to-be 7-month-old grandchild. And Hillary and I bathed her and fed her and put her to bed, and I looked at her in that crib so I could remember how you felt, those of you who lost your loved ones.”
  • I can draw a cartoon. So can you: Steve Bee, aka Pensions Guru, was a speaker who attended the entire conference, and by the time he rose to speak about visual communication, I knew enough to be braced for sly humor and deadpan delivery. But I wasn't expecting to draw. Bee,
    who cartoons about pensions (you try it), maintains that we all can cartoon if we can write several simple letters and shapes. But Bee did more than prompt a lot of drawing. Along the way, he had us doing math, seeing visual patterns, and gave us sly lessons in analogy, suggesting, for example, that we use time units rather than monetary units to describe the numbers he calls "illions." All new ways of seeing, and describing, which are tasks speechwriters do daily.
  • Smart speakers attend speechwriting conferences: In amongst the speechwriters who dominated the attendee roster were people who only write speeches for themselves--aka, speakers. They not only got a good look at the challenges speechwriters face, they learned more about themselves as speakers as they listened to the writers talk, and tried on new ideas. I love this approach to learning, in which you dive into a community to one side of your usual path. It's brave, and illuminating, to learn this way.
  • When planning your TED talk, talk to someone else about it: My favorite exercise from my workshop on what goes into a TED-quality talk had the attendees pair up to share their ideas for TED talks, so they could hear someone else's take on what the real story might be. It's a way to get past the obvious, since many speakers miss their best story by reaching for the obvious. Spotting the story is a skill that takes time, but our workshop yielded fresh takes on fledgling talk ideas and got the speakers thinking. Attendees at this workshop came from Germany, Denmark, Belgium, England, and Malaysia. I was honored to have such a thoughtful and international group to work with.
  • It doesn't have to be "he said, she said:" The Reverend Doctor Kate Bruce demonstrated how to refer to someone--in this case, a scientist--without referring to gender, something noted by an audience member and prompting her to comment that she makes a point of not gendering her speech as much as possible, so as to welcome more people into the ideas she's putting forth. Now there's an idea, and a smart way to reach your whole audience. I'll be following up with Bruce, who directs Durham University's Centre for Communication and Preaching, to learn more for a future post.
  • Scotch and sweeties get them to the breakout: Rodger Evans showed his Scot heritage when he pitched his breakout session--on promoting a positive culture for speechwriting--with the promise of, well, Scotch and sweeties. Then he made us wait for them while we discussed the topic, the best kind of bait and switch. Let's just say we earned it in a discussion that went deep and got serious before the refreshments.
There's much I love about this conference, but this time, I was especially struck by the number of women speechwriters who approached me as friends, even if we hadn't yet met, thanks to this blog and their readership. Both male and female speechwriters keep bringing me ideas, leads, and tips to help the blog move forward, and I'm especially grateful for their suggestions for non-U.S. speakers and speeches for our Famous Speech Friday series.

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