Tag Archives: speech

How the author of The Information Diet preps a speech

How to Prep for a Presentation, by Clay Johnson

Maybe it comes with doing a lot of thinking about which information is and isn’t important. But Johnson’s determination to do a superb job of something he considers very important shines through in this piece:

Fewer things generate a higher return on investment for time spent than giving a great talk. Fewer things are more disrespectful than having that kind of opportunity, squandering it, and wasting a room full of people’s valuable time because you didn’t prep properly. So when you get an invitation to speak, be of service. The doors that will open to you because you gave a great talk are plentiful.

Filed under: Craft, Speaking Tagged: @cjoh, clay johnson, preparation, speech

Were you at my Northern Voice keynote? Review Teh Funny at SpeakerRate

Rob Cottingham (image by Randy Stewart)

Teh Funny at Northern Voice 2009 (photo by Randy Stewart)

If you happened to catch my keynote last Saturday at Northern Voice, I’d love to know what you thought. Comments are always welcome below… but now there’s a new way to let me (and any other speaker) know how you think they did.

SpeakerRate is a new online community for speakers, audience members and event planners, where you can rate presentations you’ve attended. (I’ve described it in some detail on the Social Signal blog.)

Some speakers may find this a little intimidating, the way many doctors and professors have reacted to similar sites. But I suspect it could do a huge service for us. Not a lot of events do speaker evaluations, and not all of those that do share the results; SpeakerRate is a vehicle for potentially valuable feedback and comments.

Here’s the listing for Teh Funny on SpeakerRate. If you were there, I’d appreciate your honest opinion. And then I’d love to know what you think about SpeakerRate.

Mayor Gregor Robertson’s inaugural address: text and video

Gregor Robertson

Here’s the text and video of Mayor Gregor Robertson’s inaugural address. And here’s an excerpt:

As much as I value the wisdom and experience of my colleagues, we all know there is exponentially more in the homes and offices of our city… in the studios, shop floors and classrooms…in our boardrooms and small businesses … in our galleries, hospitals and parks… there is rich, valuable wisdom and expertise in the people of Vancouver.

In the coming weeks and months, we will be asking every one of you to step up – to offer your ideas and knowledge – to tell us how you want to be involved – to share the mantle of leadership.

Because that’s what citizenship means in the 21st century.

These are challenging times. And we can’t afford not to make every possible use of the creativity, ideas and compassion of our people.

Barack Obama’s speech on race

Back in the 1993 federal election, then-Prime Minister Kim Campbell was quoted as saying that elections are no time to discuss serious issues. (If memory serves, her comment was actually much more nuanced, but was dumbed down to that pithy, sensational and damaging phrase – which kinda proved her point.)

Last week, Barack Obama challenged that idea – with a scope and, yes, audacity that was nothing short of breathtaking – in a speech that seemed entirely out of place in a North American election. Chances are you’ve heard or read excerpts, but as a speechwriter, I can’t urge you strongly enough to read and watch the whole thing.

This was not a speech made for sound bites, although it has one or two choice ones. (“I can no more disown him than…”) Instead of rejecting nuance, this speech embraces it – as any honest, positive contribution to the conversation about a complex and highly charged topic must.

There is a passage of particular interest to communicators, where he delivers a challenge that may prove even more difficult to meet than that of America’s racial divide: a call for a civil, mature discussion of the issue.

We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

And he continues, suggesting that the dialogue can be about issues that actually make a difference to people – and that this is what Americans really want.

Heady stuff. Heady enough that I wondered if commentators in the media – who are usually quick to condemn the politics of sound bites and cheap attacks, while consigning any politician who fails to deliver them to thorough obscurity – would rise to it.

The early metrics aren’t promising. Those fine folks at TechPresident used online service TagCrowd to create tag clouds of Obama’s speech and of the “editorial responses of the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal“.

Here’s Obama:

And here are America’s flagship newspapers:

Micah Sifry concludes the TechPresident post this way:

At a first glance, it seems as if our editorial guides can’t help but view the speech as a political ploy, first and foremost. Considering how rarely politicians choose to grapple in depth with hard and divisive issues like race, it’s hard to see how that is the best frame through which to view it. But that is the frame our media system uses to evaluate political speeches, no?

Personally, I think Obama’s speech is a great test of the following question: Are we still living in the age of sound-bite politics, where the sharp attack line, even taken out of context, can become the “truth” of an event or a person thanks to the amplifying and distorting effects of broadcast media? Or are we entering the age of sound-blast politics, where a 37-minute speech can actually be watched, read, and digested by millions of people (a million views already on YouTube!) using the abundant spaces of the internet–and the themes and meanings they encounter and absorb will be not about the “politics” of a speech, but its actual content?

In other words, are we entering an age when politicians can be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character?

Maybe, and I really want to think so – but that age is going to take a while to arrive. I don’t expect a single speech, no matter how great, to change decades of ingrained behaviour. It will take a determination by politicians to consistently respond with courage, substance and integrity to challenges such as the one Obama faced with Rev. Wright’s comments – and a willingness by leaders in the media to stop complaining about politicians who lack substance on Monday and punishing those who don’t on Tuesday.

But when the week starts with Fox News asking if Bill Richardson is playing the race card by growing a beard, the situation doesn’t look all that hopeful.

Stay the course: a plea from President Gaius Baltar

My friends and fellow humans,

Tomorrow you will be voting in mid-term elections. And while the office of president is not on this ballot – an office, I would point out, for which the only duly-elected occupant is myself, despite what certain conspiracy theorists would have you believe – I am all too aware that your decision on election day will reflect on my presidency.

And so, in that vein, I am speaking to you today to appeal to your loyalty and to your steadfastness: stay the course in this election. Don’t endorse the cut-and-run policies of Admiral Adama and Laura Roslin. Because such an endorsement would only encourage those who would do us harm.

There are people who say, “But Gaius, New Caprica was a failure. The economy tanked. Thousands died in a pointless military quagmire and a disastrous occupation.”

To them I say, you’ve only heard one side of the story. Media bias. What about the good news on New Caprica? The way the declining population meant shorter lineups at the market. The snazzy outfits worn by our Cylon occupiers. And just ask Kara Thrace how committed we were to the upstanding values of marriage and the family.

Sure, we made some tough decisions. Some people were upset to see terrorists put in jail, and by “jail” I mean secret prisons where they certainly weren’t tortured. Or people who were probably terrorists. Or who might have been terrorists. Because, you know, there’s no proof they weren’t. But I want to reiterate that none of them were tortured, because we don’t do that. I won’t stand for it. Wouldn’t turn a blind eye to it, either, no offense to Col. Tigh.

And I kept promises. I said we would stand down as the Cylons stood up, and as it turned out, that was kind of mandatory.

Yes, I would have liked to achieve more. For one thing, I’d like to be making this speech from somewhere other than the bridge of a Cylon base star. But we go to space in the ships we have, not the ships we wish we had, or wish we were on, or wish to hell we’d never gotten off of.

My point is this. I don’t read polls, which is a good thing because right now they’d be really depressing. I lead from the gut, and my gut says it’s easy to second-guess the guy at the top. It’s easy to say “I wouldn’t have signed that death warrant” or “He shouldn’t have spent so much of the time on holiday before we were invaded”. But what you don’t realize is that handing over humanity to our mortal enemies is hard, hard, hard, hard work, and a little appreciation wouldn’t be out of place here.

So that’s my call to you. Tomorrow, go to the polls and vote for two more years of the kind of leadership that got us where we are today.

Thank you.

SpeechList Issue #6: When NOT to give a speech

Issue 6 – May 23, 2006


  1. Opening words
  2. Feature article: Seven reasons not to give a speech
  3. Reports from Ragan
  4. Reading list
  5. This issue’s tip
  6. Subscribing, unsubscribing and passing along the news

Continue reading

In the moment

The mixed reviews for Jon Stewart’s Oscar-hosting performance last weekend may reflect a dilemma I’ve noticed with many speakers. They get only tepid response from their audiences during their prepared remarks, but wow ’em during the Q and A afterward.

Often that reflects a lack of confidence in the material they’re delivering – and Stewart certainly didn’t look that delighted with the jokes he had to work with. Much of his opening monologue made him sound more like the emcee at a regional sales convention than the host of the funniest, hottest current affairs show in a generation.

Of course, it doesn’t help if your audience hasn’t been warmed up, or if you’re the thing that stands between them and the thing they really want to hear (in this case, the names of the winners). Stewart had an uphill battle from the start, and his brand of humour – more biting and ironic than Billy Crystal’s more ingratiating approach – is out of step with the atmosphere of mutual self-congratulation that permeates the Oscars.

But once the opening monologue was over, and the actual events got under way, Stewart’s improvisational wit (and the skill of the backstage writers) had a chance to shine, and made the most of it. (My favourite line dealt with the absurdly large Oscar statue on the stage; Stewart asked if the audience tore it down, would democracy break out in Hollywood?) You got the impression watching the show that the monologue was a formality: that Stewart wanted to get it out of the way as much as the audience did.

Think about that the next time you’re approaching a speech that just doesn’t grab you. What would it take for you to feel more in the moment? What are your opportunities to engage with the audience over shared experiences? And what can you cut from the beginning of the speech so you can get to the part you really want to talk about?

Ragan Speechwriter’s Conference, day 1: The fiery muse of Tack Cornelius

If the pre-conference session is any indication, this is going to be a terrific conference.

Tack Cornelius, a 22-year veteran of the speechwriting game in the political and corporate arenas, just wrapped three advice-packed hours. He conveyed an abiding passion for great writing and compelling images; his wide-ranging presentation returned constantly to the power of a single vivid, evocative metaphor and the importance of feeding your creative muse.

Coming up with those metaphors isn’t just serendipity: Cornelius keeps an idea file of subject-by-subject news clippings, each relating a fact or story that might come in handy for bringing an abstract concept down to earth for his next audience. It might be the way UPS ships lobsters (as a way of explaining how supply chains work), or a myriad possible rhetorical uses of the iPod (which could illustrate anything from the global assembly line to the demand economy to the shift away from coal-and-steel economics).

I warmed to him instantly when he stressed the overriding importance of content and message – especially when he said that a message isn’t just something like “We’re customer-focused” or “We make great products.” (Or “We’re better than that other party.”) Sharpening messages is a skill he picked up as the editorial page editor for the Lexington Herald, where his job required him to write eight to 10 pithy, persuasive essays a week; being able to describe the message of each editorial in a single sentence was crucial.

Ultimately, he said, a speechwriter forces knowledgable, talented people to decide exactly how they want to talk about things – and in the process, clarifies and sharpens their understanding of the subject at hand.

I was also struck by Cornelius’ methods for feeding his muse (a “muse of fire”, as he quotes from Henry V). He keeps two books with him at all times – Hamlet and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology – and reads as much for the sound and rhythm of the words and sentences as their meaning.

He has a head full of speechwriting stories, and far more to teach than anyone could learn in an afternoon. I’ll look forward to hearing more from him someday soon.