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Speechwriting Fundamentals and Best Practices - Focusing on the audience

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December 13, 2016

Focusing on the audience
Many fledgling speakers make the mistake of writing for themselves without ever considering the audience. Yes, you may be the funniest person you know, but that means nothing if no one else laughs.  

One of the hardest concepts for speakers and leaders to grasp is that many of the concepts we take for granted are known only to a few. What you may deem common sense because of your experience may very well open a new world for someone without your background. Try to remember a time that you did not know what you know now. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have had someone show you the way?

Your job is to take these key concepts and present them in such a way that those who are hearing them for the first time may understand them, remember them, and USE them.

Using literary tools for retention & interest
Many of the same tools you would use for great literary works can be employed in your speech writing, with the understanding that you want to keep it short and sweet.

Storytelling is the oldest and most effective art of information sharing. Your story is unique and should be shared. When you give an example, using your experience not only endears you to your audience, but it cements the concept in their minds.

Think you don’t have any stories? Think again. As speakers, we never have bad experiences, we only have speech fodder.

I have built trophy-winning speeches and entire books around my experiences with flat tires, playing fetch, and putting out a fire with a Snuggie. I bet you have both poignant and hilarious stories to tell about your life, your pets, and your family, too. Anaphora, alliteration, and rhyme …use one of these and they’ll remember every time.

Anaphora is repeating a phrase at the beginning of a sentence. It can be quite effective, particularly if you want to invoke emotion: “I have a dream…”1 “We shall fight…”2

This repetition makes the point more memorable and often more powerful than just listing things. It is also a great tool for improving your cadence, or rhythm, while speaking. You will hear preachers and politicians use this technique often.

Its opposite, epistrophe, is repeating the phrase or word at the end. “Of the people, by the people, for the people.”3

How about, “I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper, we’re a Pepper. Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?” Yes, it is so effective that it is used in countless commercials.

Alliteration is the use of similar sounds in a string of words. It could be consonance (using the same consonant sound such as, “crisp crackers cause confusion”) or assonance (using the same vowel sound such as, “any alligator adores almonds.”) It does not have to be the same letter, just the sound. It also may come in the middle of the word, rather than the beginning. Remember, you’re writing for the ears!

Rhyme can make things fun and very memorable. Just remember, it is too easy to make it cheesy. Depending on the crowd, you may not want to illicit groans.

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The Rule of Three

I could go on, times three!

Three is a magic number. It helps you memorize things. It makes a point more…pointy. Three is more effective, more satisfying, and funnier.

There is actually a whole bunch of science behind this concept. Simply put, humans love patterns. Three is the smallest amount of information needed for us to recognize a pattern. Thus, three is the quickest, most effective way to introduce ANY pattern.

As an improvisational actor, I have learned that the audience desires gags in groups of three. For instance, when a duck crosses the stage as two other actors talk about the duck problem, it’s funny. If a second duck waddles across the stage, the audience leans in waiting for the third. The third duck gets the real laugh. If there is no third duck, the scene does not feel complete. Our brains are hard wired to desire the third duck!

Use this tool whenever and however you can. Never put more than three bullet points on a slide. Only use three pieces of backup for a concept. Group instructions in in threes.

Infusing humor
I have often said, “If they’re laughing, they’re learning.” This does not mean that you have to be a professional comedian. It does mean that your talk will be more memorable if you allow your audience the release of laughing at some point.

What you are looking for is the shared experience. Again, this comes with knowing your audience. If the CEO is OK with you poking fun at her, knock yourself out (with her permission). Self-effacing humor is fun, too. Just be gentle, you don’t want your audience to pity you rather than laugh with you. Remember, you are teasing yourself, not berating yourself.

Again with the rule of three
The concept is simple but powerful. Use the rule of three to make things both memorable and funny. The setup is to list three related things — two matching and one twist. These might be two perfectly average things and a crazy one, or two crazy things and an average one. The laugh comes at the surprise. Here are a couple of examples from some of my presentations:

My GPS never gives me truly valuable suggestions such as, “check your mirrors,” “remember to signal,” or “stay off the sidewalk!” (normal, normal, crazy)

They come from such exotic places as Sydney, Madrid, and Los Angeles. (foreign, foreign, local)

Remember, you are writing for speaking. These got big laughs when delivered live.

Stay away from politics, religion, and sex
Just do. There is no nice way to offend people. The only exceptions are if you are speaking for a political rally, a church, or Dr. Ruth. Otherwise, stick to things that are not controversial.

Editing for maximum effectiveness
It has been said that the best speeches (or books, or poems, or anything written, really) are not written — they are RE-written. Editing is not easy, but it is essential for understanding, retention, and to keep you in time. By cutting out anything that does not directly relate, your speech will be exponentially more effective.

Write for speaking, not reading
Listening is quite different than reading. Your words should sound better than they look. This will sometimes mean shorter sentences and less colorful verbiage. That is OK.

This also means less jargon — as your listeners cannot pause you to look up terms they do not understand. Why use a flowery phrase when something simple will work better?

ALWAYS read your speeches out loud before you begin to edit them. There will be words that trip you up — get rid of them. There will be passages that make your brain freeze — rewrite them. There will be parts that make you pause. Snip them.

While poetry is grand and long sentences may work wonderfully in novels, they are tiresome in speech. Yes, on paper, your sentences may appear short. They will be music to the ears of your audience.

Yet again with the Rule of Three
Earlier, as you were mapping out your presentation, you created your sub points and backup in sets of three. Besides making it easier for you to memorize and for your audience to follow, this method allows for one more incredibly useful tactic: on the fly timing. If you are the last speaker of the day and all those other presentations went long (as they usually do), you can simply cut one of the branches entirely. No one will know. Skip to your awesome close and finish on time. You will look like a polished pro.

Eliminate redundancies
Have you ever been “let go” because your position was redundant? That was a not-so-nice way to let you know that the company did not need you. It saved them money to get rid of you. While that may have hurt your feelings, it made sound business sense. Be as merciless with the following phrases.

Most egregious errors
- I thought to myself
- He shrugged his shoulders
- I can see some nodding heads
- She winked her eye

If you catch yourself writing these phrases (or saying them in daily life), break yourself of the nasty habit by trying the following:
- Think to someone else
- Shrug something else
- Nod something else
- Wink something else

Can’t do it? Then don’t say it!

All too Common Redundancies

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