Failure is always an option. -Adam Savage (photo of a dropped ice cream cone)

Speechwriting mistakes: four ways I screwed up (so you don’t have to)

I’d love to tell you that every speech I’ve written has been a roaring success, that every word was purest gold and that I never once face-planted into the metaphorical pavement.

Or that yeah, I did screw up, but it was only once. Or only twice.

But the truth is, I’ve made plenty of speechwriting mistakes along the way. And you will, too (if you haven’t already)—but maybe if I share some of mine, I can help you make different mistakes.

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Photo of bundled letters and papers

Writing to be heard

Wil Wheaton recently posted something to Medium, and it’s well worth reading on its own merits. But one passage jumped out at me in particular:

Please note that I wrote this to be spoken/performed, and it may not translate 100% to the written form.

The piece itself (both as a speech and an article) could do a lot of good in encouraging people to be kinder and more thoughtful, and to avoid cruel, bullying behaviour. But that little preamble could do a lot, too.

Wheaton acknowledges an often-overlooked fact: writing for the printed page is different from writing to be heard. There are things you can do in print (or in pixels) that often don’t work nearly as well spoken aloud: complex sentences, parenthetical asides, inverted structures.

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Photo of Edward Snowden

Speaking from half a world away: Edward Snowden on big data, security and privacy

Last night, I joined hundreds of other Vancouverites at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre for an evening with Edward Snowden.

For more than an hour, the intelligence-contractor-turned-whistleblower spoke to us via videoconference. He was articulate, quietly passionate and completely focused…at 5:00 a.m. Moscow time.

Set aside for a moment the substance of his talk. Just consider this:

Speechwriters often have to write for less-than-ideal events; speakers often have to deliver despite jet lag, poor acoustics or recalcitrant LCD projectors.

But if Snowden can speak with such energy, intelligence and poise at the end of an all-nighter, into a video camera, in exile… well, it puts any challenges I’ve faced into context.

Here are my sketchnotes from the evening (drawn in darkness, by the light – ironically enough – of my privacy-nightmare iPhone). Continue reading

Donald Trump notwithstanding, oversimplification and bluster aren’t winning strategies for speakers.

Will Donald Trump kill speechwriting? (Spoiler: no.)

A few months before the GOP convention, the leading contender for the party’s presidential nomination is Donald Trump: a man who draws huge, rapturous crowds… yet delivers long, rambling speeches that are apparently entirely off the cuff.

Now, let’s be clear: there’s a lot more on the line here than what that means for speechwriters. (For instance, I believe the presidency of an authoritarian race-baiting con artist would be bad for nearly everyone and downright catastrophic for most, American or otherwise. In related news, I don’t sleep too well these days.)

But a lot of leaders have to be looking at Trump and asking if that approach would work for them, too. Could they command audience adulation and overwhelming ovations if they just ranted from the stage for an hour or so, as long as they kept boasting, pressing the right hot buttons and insulting the right targets?

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Listening to your client's feedback often means hearing past their words to what they're actually saying.

Translating client feedback: What they say vs. what they want

One of your most important skills as a speechwriter is listening to your client when they give you feedback. That often means hearing past their words, to what they’re actually saying… and it almost always means probing more deeply for the real issue behind a comment or request.

Here’s a little translation help – some of what I’ve learned to hear when clients give me feedback on the draft of a speech: Continue reading

Maybe speechwriting doesn’t matter so much after all..?

You’ve probably heard speeches you’d swear were content-free. Here’s one that actually is — and it’s a TEDx talk.

Beneath that hollow exterior lurks actual content: a pretty devastating critique of how a thin speech can inflate its apparent substance using the TEDx style. Maybe if Will Stephen’s performance reaches a wide enough audience (and at 2.5 million views so far, it’s well on its way), Taking Off Your Glasses won’t be such a killer move any more.

(via Mitch Joel)

We, the people in the audience

The Presentation Audience’s Bill of Rights

WHEREAS life is short and our time on Earth is finite;

WHEREAS the duration of a bad presentation is subjectively many times longer than that of a good one;

WHEREAS the dedication of audience’s time and attention to a speaker is a gift of considerable value, not to be taken lightly;

THEREFORE we solemnly declare these to be the Presentation Audience’s Bill of Rights and Freedoms, and pledge to respect and uphold them to the best of our ability. Continue reading

photo of burnt matches

When your audience isn’t feeling the Bern

This weekend, Bernie Sanders spoke to a predominantly African-American audience at the dining room of a South Carolina church. According to this account, the response from the mealtime crowd was tepid: polite clapping for all but a couple of lines.

We’re used to reading about packed stadiums roaring their approval for Mr. Sanders’ stump speech. So where did this one go off the rails?

It’s hard to judge from a single news story, but this sounds an awful lot like a rally speech delivered to a decidedly non-rally crowd.

There’s a big difference between a crowd that assembles to hear you speak, and a crowd assembled for a completely different reason, where you happen to be a guest. Continue reading