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8. Those three little words

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There’s a lot of attention these days on ROI. (I don’t mean “return on investment” in the accounting sense; I mean the you’d-think-it-would-go-without-saying-but-apparently-it-doesn’t sense that your communication activities should advance your organization toward some important goal in a measurable way.) People want to know if their communications channels and initiatives are earning their keep.

But there’s another group of people looking for a return on their investment in communications vehicles. They’re the folks we used to call the audience.

Their investment is their time and attention, whether it’s attending a presentation, watching an ad or engaging on Twitter. And the return can come in many forms: entertainment, inspiration, practical information, actionable insights. (The very least value you can offer is the fact that you’ll get out of the way soon and let people watch the next act of Burn Notice, once your ad and five others are done.)

In my past life as a speechwriter, there came a point when I started asking early in the process, “What can we offer the folks in the room?” instead of just “What do we want from them?” (Again, you’d think it would go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t.) And it fundamentally changed the response my speeches were getting… as well as my clients’ happiness with them. And it’s only become more important now that organizational communication is becoming more and more conversational.

The nice folks at have posted an article of mine with eight of my top speechwriting tips. If you’ve been looking to break in, or just been handed your first speechwriting assignment, why not check it out?

7. Eminence front

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There’s an aspect of public speaking that a lot of people find difficult — and that’s after they’ve gotten past the anxiety, the ums and uhs, and the little mannerisms and tics (for the love of god, put the pen down).

On the stage, as you project yourself to the room emotions at all, you’re — I hope — being honest, open and, yes, authentic.

Here’s the part they find hard: You’re also performing.

Because feeling an emotion is different from conveying an emotion. And if you’re talking in front of an audience of hundreds or thousands, you’re constantly making more-or-less conscious decisions about just how that conveying will happen.

If you don’t do that, then oddly enough, chances are you’ll come across as stilted, unnatural and unfeeling.

When you’re coaching someone on their speaking, the moment they get that is often the moment they break through and start connecting with their audiences at a much deeper and more meaningful level.

You can take it too far, of course. You don’t want to become an actor doing an only-somewhat-convincing portrayal of yourself. But my experience is you know instinctively when you’re about to cross that line.

It’s great to be starting a new storyline! But remind me to kick myself the next time I start drawing a strip with a different location in every panel.

6. Up and at ’em

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Early in my career, I overslept an alarm and arrived minutes before the morning keynote was due to begin. I wasn’t speaking… but I was operating the digital projector for the slideshow I’d built.

This was back in the days when a digital slideshow was jaw-dropping in and of itself, and I’d worked into the wee hours getting everything just right. Hence sleeping through the alarm. But I was in time, right? Everything would be fine, right?

Nuh-uh. (Gather round, young ‘uns, and I’ll tell you of a time when laptops and projectors rarely spoke the same language. How long ago was this? The software was Aldus Persuasion.) The speaker was halfway through her 40-minute presentation before I finally hit the right combination of cables and keyboard shortcuts. I flashed her a thumbs-up; the look she replied with suggested she had a different finger in mind.

From then on, I’ve always prepared presentations with the knowledge that it might not work – and that I might have to resort to some kind of neanderthal projector-less talk. And while it’s only happened once or twice in the years since, at least I was kinda-sorta ready for it.

This cartoon is the coda for the saga of the mayor and Twitter. I’m hitting the road for a while, so check back in two weeks for more Damage Control. (In the meantime, there’s always Noise to Signal.)

And thanks for all the kind words and support in these early days – it’s hugely gratifying, and I can’t wait to draw more!

5. Invitation-only

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It’s pretty easy to be brought up short when a client or boss comes out with something valid and challenging in an area of technical or specialized knowledge where you thought they were… well, kind of clueless.

It upsets the balance of power that you often find in these relationships: yes, they’re paying you, but you have some knowledge or skill they need. That can mean they defer to your experience or judgement, that you have a peer-to-peer relationship, or at least that they keep signing the paycheques.

So when you’ve been explaining that when you move the mouse like so that the cursor moves in just the same way, and the client/boss replies with a particularly penetrating insight into the relative virtues of the GPL over the BSD license, or the finer points of a media buying strategy… it can be tempting to try to rebalance the scales. A little bafflegab, a few intimidating acronyms, one or two references to polarizing the forward sensor array and rerouting power through the aft warp conduits, and guru status can be yours again.

But I’m not a fan of that approach. You could be caught out, for one thing. More important, it’s actually great when clients or employers understand the work you do. They become more effective advocates within the organization for it; they have more efficient and more interesting conversations with you; and you really can benefit from their ideas and inspiration. Honest.

What? You don’t believe me? You think you know better? Well, maybe come back once you’ve decompiled a positronic axial topography by hand in the middle of a graviton particle beam – then we’ll talk.

4. You woke me for THIS?

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There are many cardinal sins in communications strategy, but one of the biggies is to get everyone wound up over a crisis that turns out to be nothing. I did this in the early years of my career (which is to say, up until, oh, Tuesday last).

Most offices have at least one person who does this regularly, and that person tends to get nudged gently down toward the soundproof end of the corridor. Over the years, their look of imminent panic softens into morose despair; they become accustomed to being the unheeded voice of sanity, and even begin to savour the role of She or He Who Cries Wolf.

Until the day they’re right…

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