What Cirque du Soleil Can Teach Speechwriters

Cirque du Soleil combines drama, pageantry, acrobatics and live music into a thrilling treat for the senses. But mesmerized audiences are far less aware of the role communications plays in crafting the excitement on stage.

Take for instance Mystère, the Cirque du Soleil show in residence at Treasure Island in Las Vegas. During every performance, acrobats, comedians, singers and musicians create an out of this world experience for viewers. Yet underscoring the action is a solid foundation of communication designed to keep the audience engaged and focused on the magic rather than the technique.

Chances are, you won’t be able to convince your speaker to do a double back flip at the end of a speech. What you can do, however, is apply some lessons drawn from Mystère to write a better script.

Start charming the audience while the lights are up

At a Mystère performance, the action begins while the theatre lights are still bright. Clowns appear in the aisles where they interact with people waiting for the show to begin. The result is laughter and applause. In a matter of minutes, isolated groups of families, friends and couples come together as a single audience with a common purpose -- to have some fun. And as they do, the atmosphere in the theatre warms up.

Lesson: Reaching people through a sense of community can do a lot to set a friendly tone and open the minds of listeners to the speech giver’s ideas. So, establish common ground with the audience early in the speech. For example: mention a shared cause, affiliation, belief, purpose or experience. Or, do like the Cirque du Soleil performers: inject some gentle humour to bring the audience together through laughter.

Bring listeners back to the theme from time to time

Mystère comprises a mind-boggling array of acts and activities. Trapeze artists, wirewalkers and gymnasts bedazzle the audience with amazing physical feats. But occasionally, the pace slows. As it does, the musicians play a refrain and the master of ceremonies and other now familiar characters take centre stage. This reset re-establishes the mood and brings continuity to the show.

Lesson: Bring people back to a point where they can see the big picture from time to time. Listeners have a limited capacity to absorb detail. A steady stream of facts, statistics and lists can lead to information overload. Reminding people of the main message here and there will give them context. Artful repetition of the overarching idea will also help the audience remember the key point.

Smooth the flow

To stage Mystère, groups of performers discretely move in and out of the audience's field of vision. The skill with which they make their entries and exits distracts attention from the logistics of the show.

Lesson: Poor transitions pull the curtain back to show the audience the rough edges of your speech. In contrast, good transitions can be a credibility builder for the speaker who uses them to move seamlessly from topic to topic. Writing smooth transitions takes time and thought. So, put real effort into developing transitions that will keep the audience focused on the message rather than the mechanics of the speech.

Leave a strong impression

Mystère ends with an image that's hard to forget. (I won't spoil the surprise by telling you what it is.) But as the performers disappear into the wings and the lights come up, a wondrous sight fills the stage.

Lesson: While no rule says every speech has to end with a trumpeting call to action, the close should give the audience something to think about. To create a lasting impression ask and answer a thought provoking question, make a vivid analogy, share a compelling statistic, or tell a story that illustrates the main point.

Finally, when you finish writing your speech take a bow (and don’t forget to wipe the greasepaint off your face).