Thursday, March 24, 2016

4 effective ways to read a letter as part of your speech

President Obama is among the speakers who share letters as part of their speeches, but you don't have to be a world leader to read a letter from the stage. It happens in all sorts of speaking engagements. Sometimes, the letter is from a speaker or participant who couldn't be present, or the chair of the meeting wants to share a message from a celebrity or dignitary to open the session. A speaker might read a few letters to convey, in their own voices, viewpoints from several types of people she's talking about. A politician might read a letter from a fan or potential voter. A history talk might include a famous letter, or an obscure one that sums up a point. And any speaker might reach for the letters of some great observer of humanity to make a special point, phrased in a pithy way.

It might seem as if reading letters as part of your speech would be the easiest of the speaker's tasks, but it often trips up moments that should be smoothly delivered. Here are some tips I've gleaned for speakers who wish to incorporate a letter into a speech or remarks:
  1. Find letters that create a brief, vivid picture: Just as every speech has a job to do, don't introduce a letter unless it serves a distinct purpose in your speech that your own words can't do as well. Try Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience as one potential source.
  2. Do look at the letter: Sometimes, speakers who've memorized their talks also memorize the letters they're "reading" to the audience--then forget to look at the letter in their hand. If you're going to hold a letter, read from it, rather than from memory--otherwise, you create the disconcerting appearance of someone who can read without glancing at the page. Prefer to quote from the letter without actually reading? Then don't hold a piece of paper to convey that it's a letter, and use your words to introduce it as such.
  3. Read a handwritten version: Downton Abbey actor Lesley Nicol, who played cook Mrs. Patmore in the period drama, shares a tip about reading letters you can borrow from the program. It came up in a podcast interview about her last day of shooting on the program, and whether she'd taken a souvenir from the set: "I think Hugh [Bonneville] took one of the letters, which is a very good idea, 'cause that would have been thrown away. And those letters were always beautifully handwritten by somebody, so that when you read it, it would be like reading the actual letter." Reading a handwritten version will help you slow down, so we can hear what's in the letter.
  4. Don't feel compelled to imitate the voice of the letter writer: Some speakers I've worked with turn actor-like when reading letters, aiming for the accent and other speaking styles of the writer. But there's no need for you to turn ventriloquist or mimic. If something about the writer is important--that she is from the South, or spoke in a British accent--just say so as you introduce the letter you are about to read.
(Creative Commons licensed photo by adm)

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