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


The Pigeon of Dorian Gray, and why you should throw it off the fire escape

Early in my speechwriting career, I was writing for a political candidate. It began with a few weeks of straight-up euphoria. Great news coverage. Enthusiastic volunteers. Support and donations rolling in.

(And I got to use state-of-the-art technology: a Compaq luggable computer, with a tiny amber-coloured screen. Imagine the form factor of a classic Star Trek tricorder, except built in the Soviet Union. At the time, it seemed like a miracle… a bulky, leaden miracle.)

Then we hit the doldrums.

Our momentum stalled, and we found ourselves in a dogfight. All that glowing news coverage began to dim: our momentum was stalling, people said—and impressionable lad that I was, I took that to heart, and so did many of the other young volunteers in the office.

More fundamentally, the candidate was still fairly new to elected politics… and to public speaking. In her* first few debates and speaking appearances, it was clear she was still finding her voice as a speaker. And I was still struggling to write material that would work for her. The audience response to her speeches was muted at best, and the media reviews were often snide. I took that very personally, and felt thoroughly frustrated.

It didn’t help that our committee room had all the air circulation of a coffin. And as the temperature and humidity climbed in tandem, there was one source of frustration that outstripped all others: the window.

The office had one opening window, which was latched shut. A sticky note warned that the window was not to be opened except in dire emergency (a fire escape landing was immediately outside), because that would set off a burglar alarm. And if that happened, well… actually… ah… The consequences weren’t spelled out, but in a way, that only made them all the more dire. None of us wanted to be the one responsible for a headline like Campaign idiots cause evacuation of building, SWAT team response”.

And it wasn’t as though opening it would turn the office into a springtime paradise; the window looked onto one of the city’s darker, less well-appointed alleys. You could practically see the air hanging there: a stagnant miasma of methane, garbage fumes and discarded poutine, laced with a soupçon of urine.

Still, we’d look longingly at it as the temperature climbed and the building’s feeble air conditioning did the bare minimum required to hold up the landlord’s side of the tenancy deal.

During the spring, the fire escape outside was the domain of a fairly randy flock of pigeons, doing the Three Cs of Pigeoning: Cooing, Crapping, and Copulating.

But sometime in June, a single pigeon waddled into the centre of the fire escape platform, slumped onto its side, and carried out a fourth C: Croaking. Continue reading

Illuminate, the new book from Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez

Illuminate: the exciting new book from Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez

There’s a new book out this week from Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez, and I’m pretty excited.

Ms. Duarte’s earlier books Slideology and Resonate changed the way I think about presentations and speaking. They breathed new life into the three-act structure, and gave us a valuable tool for analyzing speeches. And her idea of the STAR moment (for Something They’ll Always Remember) has given speechwriters and speakers alike a way to elevate every speech to a new level.

Now Ms. Duarte and Ms. Sanchez (the Chief Strategy Office of Duarte, Inc.) promises to harness the power of those past two books to the task of leadership, with Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols.

They stress the pivotal role of empathy in motivating others “to embrace big dreams and drive them forward.” Understanding how people experience change is critical to gaining not only their support, but their active participation.

That dovetails with an idea I’ve been exploring for the past three years. Loyalty to institutions is in its death throes. And the ascribed loyalty that comes with a leadership title is just as moribund. Instead of deferring to institutional authority, a new generation of employees, supporters and citizens is looking for inspiration and common purpose.

Leaders, increasingly, can’t command by fiat. Instead, they have to inspire alignment — and a big part of that is personal presentation.

The implications for public speaking are far-reaching. Authenticity, transparency and passion are taking on much more importance. And those who can tell compelling, convincing stories are poised to move to a more central role in their organizations — as communicators and as leaders.

Illuminate promises to shed some needed light (sorry) on how to tell those stories in a way that inspires and motivates. I’m looking forward to reading it (and I’ll review it here as soon as I do). But if it lives up to that promise, and I have every reason to think it will, this could be the most important book speechwriters read this year.

Capturing a speaker’s voice matters

This post argues that speechwriters shouldn’t worry about capturing a speaker’s voice. Structure the speech well, Mike Long argues, and it’ll all come out in the wash.

And while I understand that all the tailored turns of phrase in the world can’t save a bad speech, or turn a mediocre speaker into a great one, I can’t agree with Mike’s premise. (Not that I don’t want to; I want to agree with anyone who has Steely Dan lyrics in their Twitter bio. Maybe next time.)

Here’s what I said in response; I’d love to know what you think.

I get what you’re saying, Michael — and I heartily agree you should get the fundamentals right before you even begin to think about voice. And it’s amazing how often a speaker will say you’ve “captured their voice” just by writing in a conversational tone.

But you can definitely make a speaker feel more at home with speaking notes that reflect their vocal patterns and preferred word choices. It isn’t all delivery. Some speakers are far more at home with bold, declarative statements than others. They express emotion in different ways. They use idioms that reflect their age, gender, race, culture, social class, life experience… and it’ll all be different.

And if your speaker lacks confidence, experience or time to revise? The more comfortable they feel with your text from the start, the better.

So yes, get the fundamentals right. But once they’re nailed, time spent reflecting your speaker’s authentic voice will be well worth it.

Audrey McLaughlin leadership campaign button - here's how I became her speechwriter

Origin story: how I became a speechwriter

People often ask me how to get started in speechwriting. I have a long answer with some practical advice (it’s a decade old, but still valid), but the short answer is that there’s no one route in; there’s no formal career path for a speechwriter to follow.

There’s no Speechwriting Academy on the lookout for promising young high school speechwriters, offering them generous scholarships to their four-year post-secondary program, and then on completion apprenticing them to established speechwriters for a few years of grueling labour (“Fetch me more adjectives, apprentice! And be…” “…snappy? expeditious? swift?” “Yes!”) before they finally get their certification that allows them to be formally listed with the Registrar of Speechwriters.

As far as I know, anyway. Maybe you know different, and like an idiot I did this the hard way.

* * *

In April of 1989, I was working with a non-profit peace group. While we were tackling a range of issues, the most politically salient was our campaign against Canada’s planned purchase of three nuclear-powered submarines.

We’d built a lot of support, but it still came as a shock when the federal government abruptly announced they were scrapping the purchase. It came as an equal shock when, within a week or two, donations to the organization slowed drastically. Apparently, our victory prompted our donors to take their own equivalent of a peace dividend, and soon I found myself without a job. Continue reading