Speechwriting in a Crisis

One of the jobs I held early in my communications career involved creating content for police crisis exercises. We used some pretty wild scenarios, but the organizers certainly never conjured up anything as dire and exceptional as policing in a pandemic.

And therein lies the challenge with crises. They’re hard to predict. So, does that mean there's nothing you can do to prepare? Not at all. What you can do is is bring yourself up to speed on crisis communications principles. That knowledge will give you a framework for writing effective scripts in critical situations.

Here are some suggestions for things to do:

End on Peak Experience

We all know the importance of making a good first impression, but persuasion scientists tell us that people are deeply influenced by last impressions too. That’s why it’s worth the effort to carefully craft the way you close a speech or presentation.

For years I’ve encouraged people who attend my workshops to take advantage of the rule of recency. According to that rule, an audience tends to remember best and longest the information they hear at the end of a talk. But Steve J. Martin and the co-authors of The Small Big: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence suggest another tool speechwriters can use to heighten persuasion. It’s called the peak experience effect.

According to Martin and friends, amplifying the high points of a situation at or near the end of an interaction can exert enormous influence over future decisions. Rock bands take advantage of this theory, for example, by playing their biggest hits at the end of a concert, leaving fans with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Hotels do the same when they place a chocolate on your pillow, ending the day on a sweet note.

Sharpen Key Words to Maximize Impact

Good speechwriters know it’s important to build a speech or presentation around a strong key message. But, what about choosing key words? Do you have to go to that level of effort? In a recent blog post, author and marketer Seth Godin said when most people scan a memo, post or ad for the first time they only pick up about 10 words. Readers can always re-read written material, unless they’re in a car speeding by a billboard. However, in many cases, listeners get one chance to hear what a presenter has to say. So, choosing key words with care is worth some effort. Besides, the exercise gives you, the writer, another useful tool for sharpening the impact of the ideas you want the audience to take away.

Follow these three steps to choose and use key words.

Take Small Steps to Persuade

Confucius said a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and, oddly enough, persuading people to accept an idea or take some action works the same way. The trick is to know what small steps to take.

In How To Argue With a Cat, rhetorical ninja Jay Heinrich says a persuader’s goal shouldn’t be to win an argument; it should be to use argument techniques to win over people. One such tool is likeability, or what psychologists call "affective presence". It's a matter of how a person makes others around them feel.

So, if you (or the speaker you write for) has to give a talk to a roomful of skeptical listeners, take these three small steps to increase the chances the audience will find you likeable.

Make A Good Impression on the Podium

If you have a long memory, you might remember a TV ad that reminded viewers “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” So, how can you help yourself (or the speaker you write for) pass that all-important test on the podium?

The key is to understand the way people judge others on a first encounter. American psychologist Amy Cuddy says we do it by asking ourselves two questions:

• Can I trust this person? and
• Can I respect this person?

In other words, Cuddy says we size up the people we meet based first on trust or “warmth”. Then we consider what she terms their “competence”.

Here are three things you can do to make a good impression when you give a speech or presentation. Read More...

Make Key Ideas Pop Like a Pub Poster

Nothing cuts to the chase faster than a pub food poster. After all, it has exactly one aim: to whet your appetite as a means of getting to your wallet. So, a good graphic designer isn’t going to let anything come between your eyes and your understanding of what the poster is all about.

Clarity is every bit as important when you write a speech or presentation. But, it’s harder to achieve. Speakers generally feel obligated to say more to an audience than the wings are good and they’re cheap: so buy ‘em. Plus, the topics and issues they want to communicate are usually more complex. The trick then is to make key points pop — so they’ll stand out and stick in listeners’ minds.

Use these three tips to do just that.

Rock Your Next Talk By Answering 5 "Essential" ?s

Convocation speakers can rarely resist the temptation to dispense advice to the gowned graduates in front of them. But, every once in a while, the ideas they share strike a chord with the world at large. Take the example of James Ryan, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He urged his listeners to stop and ask themselves five "essential" questions. The answers, he promised, would help them achieve success and fulfillment in life. Then, communications blogger Garr Reynolds wrote about Ryan's thought provoking questions, bringing them to a wider audience. Reading the article on Reynold's blog Presentation Zen, it occurred to me that answering the questions could also make a speech or presentation successful and fulfilling to the audience.

Here are the questions and some suggestions about how to apply them to a talk. Read More...

3 Presentation Tips From The Dragons' Den

“Hello Dragons.”  Does that opening line sound familiar?  If you’ve watched the CBC television show Dragons’ Den over the past 10 seasons you’ve heard countless inventors, entrepreneurs and dreamers utter those words. What comes next is the pitch each of them hopes will convince at least one Dragon to invest in their idea or product. But, as many discover, getting a deal is far from easy. The Dragons are tough to impress. They’ve all built enterprises from scratch and they know what it takes to succeed. Tracie Tighe, who has been the show’s executive producer since the start, says the people who make it on air get advice on how to hone their pitches to appeal to the Dragons. But, once the cameras start rolling, what happens next is up to them.  Read More...

3 Attention-Getting Tips From Copywriters

One of the biggest challenges to communicating with people is getting and holding their attention. Speech givers have an especially tough time. They have to shape their content to connect with and engage listeners in the here and now. Otherwise, their message falls on deaf ears. Copywriters live and die by their ability to win attention through words. Here are three copywriting tips you can use to keep your audience with you. Read More...

3 Tips for Managing Your Deadlines

“I love deadlines,” Douglas Adams, the late author of the sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy once admitted. ”I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” And fly by they do. Writers’ lives are ruled by deadlines. Speech and presentation writers are no exception. When the clock strikes the appointed hour and the speaker steps onto the podium, he or she has to have a script in hand. 
A New Yorker cartoon does a good job of conveying the “life and death” feel of deadlines. In the picture, a man looks up from his computer to see the grim reaper and says: “Thank goodness you’re here. I can’t get anything done without a deadline.” Few people would welcome the harbinger of death with the same enthusiasm, but all of us can benefit from managing our deadlines. So, with that goal or ghoul in mind (sorry I couldn’t resist the pun) here are three tips. Read More...

3 Tips for Talking Tech to Non-Techies

Geeks do it. Bankers do it. Even scientists and engineers do it. And I’m not talking about “falling in love”. These groups are often accused of speaking a lingo the rest of us can't understand. By lapsing into insider talk, tech terms and acronyms it's easy for a speaker, no matter what their background, to leave an audience in the dark.

Think of a topic you know intimately. Now imagine trying to explain it to someone who knows nothing about it. To paraphrase the psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker, we're often unconscious of what we know and assume other people know it as well. That’s a sure recipe for poor communication.

You can make technical topics clear to non-experts, especially if you're willing to address your subject from the point of view of the listener. Follow the tips below for great results. Read More...

3 Ways To Stand Out From The Crowd

Ok, maybe wearing a zebra-patterned outfit like balloon-launch coordinators do is too much to ask. But if you deliver speeches or presentations - or write for someone who does - face the facts: it takes some effort to stand out from the crowd. Every day thousands of people step on to the podium to speak. Yet, only a fraction of the talks they give are memorable or move audiences to action. Follow the tips below to raise the chances that you’ll engage your listeners and get them onside. Read More...

Baby, it's cold outside...

Canada is caught in the grips of a deep freeze. So what better time to stay “next to the fire”, at least figuratively, and read a good book? If you write and/or deliver speeches and presentations, here are three great choices. All of them are available in hard copy and ebook format too. Read More...

Three Tips For Clear Communication

The world is awash in bad writing says a renowned linguist, and the reason for it is simple. People misjudge the gap between what they know about a topic and what their readers or listeners understand. In his recent book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide To Writing In The 21st Century, Harvard professor Steven Pinker describes how “the curse of knowledge” can obscure communication.

Bad writing creeps into speeches and presentations in the form of bureaucratese, legalese, corporate speak and other specialty dialects. A big part of a wordsmith’s job then is to express complex and arcane words and ideas in clear language. And that can be a challenge when you're really close to the subject or you have to work from documents written for an internal audience.

So, take these three steps to ward off the curse of knowledge when you prepare your next speech or presentation. Read More...

Three Apps for the Tech Savvy Writer

Do you reach for the same old tools every time you start to pull together a speech or presentation? Many of us routinely turn to Word and PowerPoint, or, in the case of Mac users, Pages and Keynote. Yet, the marketplace offers lots of other terrific options for researching, writing, editing and presenting a talk.
Whether you work on a PC or a Mac, check out these three free or low-cost apps. They'll help you save time and effort and even make your job more fun. Read More...

Don't Let Weird Al Steer You Wrong

Weird Al Yankovic is on the charts again with a clever parody of a hit song. In Word Crimes, he pokes fun at people's texting habits. Plus, he dispenses a little grammar and punctuation advice. If you write speeches and presentation scripts, enjoy the song, but be careful about taking Weird Al's advice. Here’s why. The way we talk and the way we write for the page, or computer screen are different. So, the last thing you should worry about is whether words destined to be spoken look good in print or pixels. Read More...

Where there's smoke let there be fire

Few sights are more dramatic than red hot lava rising up from an active volcano. At least that’s what I thought while I hovered in a helicopter and watched molten rock ooze from a vent on the island of Hawaii last winter. Surrounding the vent was a huge swath of what looked like crumpled asphalt. Yet, here and there plumes of smoke wafted up, providing proof that red hot lava still flowed beneath the dull layer of rock.

Although I didn’t appreciate it in the heat of the moment (pardon the pun), that scene offers a good analogy for how to construct a speech or presentation to keep it interesting and engaging from beginning to end. Read More...

Bumped from the calendar...again? No worries, you can still succeed

“Sorry, I'll have to cancel our meeting today. Maybe I can clear a few minutes tomorrow.” Getting access to a speaker is the bane of many a speech and presentation writer’s existence. Senior managers and leaders are busy people with lots of demands on their time. Sadly that situation often leaves scribes scratching dates off the calendar. It’s no wonder then that the question I’m asked most often is: how can you write for someone when you never get to meet with them?

Writing with little or no access to the speaker is a challenge. But, it’s far from impossible. And, it doesn’t have to be a frustrating experience. You can learn a lot about a speaker and do good work for them without ever exchanging a word. All it takes is some imagination and a bit of detective work. Read More...

Think beyond your message - don't just mail it in

As the pace picks up at the beginning of the new year, it's easy to fall back on the same old communications strategies and tactics. So, now is a good time to remind yourself that it isn't enough just to aim to deliver a message, you have to do it in a way that connects with people and keeps them interested. Here are a few tips that will keep audiences listening from the start to finish of any speech or presentation. Read More...

Escape gravity and make your writing soar

Eager for adventure? If so, you can always satisfy the urge by taking flight in a hot air balloon. It worked for me. Writing was the last thing on my mind as I soared above the New Mexico desert during the 2013 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. But, later, I began to see parallels between the job of piloting a balloon, and the more earthly task of writing a speech or presentation. Here are five challenges that aeronauts and scribes share. Read More...

Scribbles: Circle magic; Understanding leads to influence

The magic of the circle -

Is the work we do affected by the way we do it? The answer appears to be yes. Research into the effect of seating arrangements has revealed that people sitting in a circle are more apt to cooperate, while people sitting in rows tend to act more independently. The study, conducted by business researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta and reported in Fast Company’s Leadership Now Blog, concluded that taking a round-table approach can foster collaboration.

Take it from a hostage negotiator -

In negotiations, people are often too concerned with their own agenda and not focused enough on understanding how the other side is thinking and feeling says Richard Mullender, a former hostage negotiator with Scotland Yard. “Only if you understand them do you get the pathway to exerting influence – and without that pathway, you’re nowhere.” (A good justification for getting to know your audience before you try to sway them to your point of view in a speech or presentation, perhaps?) Read the entire interview with Richard Mullender on the blog The Art of Connection published by public speaking expert Simon Bucknall. Read More...

Accessibility: Get ahead of the trend

This news might come as a surprise, but a good number of the people gathered to hear your carefully crafted speech or presentation are missing the point -- and a lot of other information besides. That’s because roughly 40 percent of Canadians are dealing with at least one disability at any time, some of which make it difficult for them to see, hear, follow or process your words and ideas.

So, how is that your problem? Well, once again, the answer might surprise you. The way you design and deliver a talk can determine whether you reach all of your audience or leave some of them out of the conversation. Read More...

If creating a linear list leaves you cold, use mind mapping tools to sketch out your ideas

When a deadline for a speech or presentation is hurtling towards you at mach speed, it can be a heart pounding experience to discover a problem with either your content or approach. Fortunately, there's a way to avoid nasty surprises: work from an outline.

While that's good advice, few people follow it. My proof? I've surveyed a lot of writers and many of them admit they don't bother with an outline. Those who do, however, swear by the practice, and agree that it saves time, effort and stress. Read More...

Is it hard to get face time with the speaker you support? If so, don't give up.

If you write speeches for a senior executive, you probably know what a challenge it can be to grab even a few minutes of his or her time to discuss upcoming assignments. The single biggest frustration voiced during my speechwriting workshops is: "I can never get enough time with the speaker to find out what he/she wants to say." Sadly, scribes often find themselves subject to a harsh truth. Many speakers simply don't view speech meetings as a high value use of their time.

So, what's the answer? Give up and accept the status quo? Or, work at changing the speaker's perceptions? If you choose the second option, here are three steps you can take to show that speech meetings are worthwhile. Read More...

Thank you for arguing: your audience will love it

Speech and presentation writers who want to persuade often turn to stories, quotes, analogies, cleverly worded key messages and other devices. With so much choice it can be easy to overlook the value of the most basic persuasive tactic: constructing solid arguments.  

Argument is the language of logic. (When people argue in this sense, they are not quarreling. Rather, they are stating reasons and conclusions that support their point of view.) Educated audiences are good at analyzing arguments and identifying their strengths and weaknesses. It follows then that well-stated arguments can add to a speaker's credibility and persuasiveness, while poorly constructed arguments can detract. Here are three tips for building arguments that will stand up to scrutiny. Read More...

Dealing with a long laundry list of topics

Check out any book on speech and presentation writing and the advice is consistently the same: focus your talk on one strong message and back it up with three to five supporting points. But real life speeches and presentations don't always fit the classic model, and, occasionally, you may find yourself trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear long list of topics.

U.S. President Barack Obama faced that dilemma when he delivered the State of the Union Speech February 12 (2013). He spoke for roughly an hour, which is a long time considering modern-day attention spans. By my count, he covered 26 different topics ranging from debt repayment to tax reform, extreme poverty, early education, infrastructure redevelopment, gun control and the right to vote. Yet, despite all that heavy duty material, his words held my attention as he spoke them, and again later when I read the transcript.

Here are five reasons why his speech worked even though it was built around a long laundry list of items. Read More...

Start the new year strong

The holiday celebrations are over and the summer slowdown is a long way off. So, what better time to fine tune your approach to speeches and presentations than right now. Start 2013 strong by resolving to:

• Put real elbow grease into planning. Structure matters. Outline your ideas and test the logical flow before you start writing drafts or creating slides.

• Take advantage of the theatre of the mind. Stimulate the imagination of your listeners with concrete examples and analogies. They can't imagine abstractions.

• Write the way people talk. Language that looks great on the page may come across as stilted when spoken. Write your speeches to sound conversational.

• Expand your repertoire. Use rhetorical devices. They add variety to your writing and encourage listeners to think.

• Stop using slides as handouts. Minimize text on your slides and distribute separate summary handouts. Better yet, put your handouts online. If people value them, they'll download them. If not, you might save a tree or two. Read More...

Context counts for a lot in communication

In Canada, we associate the Christmas season with long, cold nights and lots of snow. But if you're lucky enough to escape to warmer climes, the atmosphere can be quite different. That certainly was the case when I visited Australia late this fall. To my eyes, the Christmas decorations in stores and along city streets seemed out of context in the blaze of the summer sun.

Establishing context is also an important part of putting together a solid speech or presentation. Without a broader framework to refer to, the audience may have difficulty recognizing your key points or realizing their importance. 

Here are three ways to put your message in context. Read More...

Tap into the power of metaphor

Winston Churchill warned of an iron curtain descending across Europe. Martin Luther King shared his dream. John F. Kennedy decreed that the torch has been passed to a new generation. 

In all three cases, the speaker used the power of metaphor to paint a vivid picture to get listeners behind their ideas. 

A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes a subject by comparing it to and calling it the same as an otherwise unrelated object. The word metaphor comes to English from the Greek term to carry between or transfer. In other words, a metaphor lets you carry meaning from one entity to another. So, a good use for metaphor in a speech or presentation is to help the audience see or understand a concept.  Read More...

Make your key message stand out - Gangnam Style!

How do you get around a city when you can't speak the language or decipher most of the signs and public notices? With relative ease, if you're visiting Seoul, South Korea. Westerners can confidently navigate the city's ultra-modern subway system because key information is posted in Roman script as well as the elegant hangul lettering Koreans use. On a trip to Seoul recently, it occurred to me that speech givers and presenters could learn something from the city's subway planners about making key message STAND OUT.

People retain only a small percentage of what they hear. The retention rate rises when they both hear and see information, but not by a huge amount. To help the audience remember your key point takes some work. Here are three tactics you can use to highlight your most important message: Read More...

Are you attuned to the needs of diverse audiences?

As people cross national boundaries to meet and collaborate, the demand continues for speeches and presentations aimed at international audiences. Are you attuned to the special needs of these listeners? The event might be scheduled to take place on the other side of the globe, or it could be happening close to home and attracting participants from different countries and cultural backgrounds.

Whatever the case, such assignments call for extra awareness and sensitivity to avoid gaffes that could mar the message. After all, the last thing you want to hear is that the audience roared with laughter at a faux pas, or, worse, sat in stony silence because they were offended. Yet, either scenario can unfold in a heartbeat.

How you plan and edit your work can make a big difference. It can be a matter as small as choosing one word over another, or as large as structuring your speech or presentation to suit the listeners’ cultural expectations. No one can say for certain what will work in every situation. But, by following some guidelines and practices based on experience, you can raise the chances that your talk will get a warm reception.

Here are some suggestions:

One last look just might pay off...

The fuse on speech assignments seems to be getting shorter. That’s my impression and other writers have told me they’re seeing the same the trend. With the pressure to research and write speeches under rush conditions how do you keep up standards? It’s not easy, especially when tight deadlines leave you with little choice but to cut corners.

No matter how fast you have to scramble to get a script together, here are three things you should always do.

  • Put the finished speech away, even for 5 −10 minutes, while you drink a cup of coffee or look out the window. Your eyes probably need a rest anyway. Then, read over the speech one more time. It’s surprising how many typos, missed words and lumpy constructions jump out when you look at a draft with fresh eyes.
  • Grab a highlighter and go hunting for the key messages. Mark them, then read them again. Does the opening include a clear main message? Could it be sharper? What about your secondary messages? Are they easy to pick out and do they support the main message? Tweak if necessary.
  • Test drive the speech. In other words, read it out loud. And, stand up to do it. Mark spots where you stumble, or need to take a deep breath to continue. Then, go back and make changes.