Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Time to Say a Few Words

Businesspeople like to tell of the condemned prisoner in the Roman arena. He stood calmly as the gates opened and a starving lion bounded toward him. Just as the lion was about to pounce, the prisoner whispered something the audience couldn't hear--and the lion whirled and bolted back through the gate.

Another lion was set loose on the prisoner, then another. Each time, he whispered something and the beast fled as if in panic.

By now, the official in charge was bursting with curiosity. He called the prisoner over and offered a full pardon "if you'll just tell me what you're saying to those lions!"

"It's simple," the prisoner replied. "I tell them, 'After dinner come the speeches!'"

The idea of a speech--especially when you're the one who has to make it--can also tempt human beings to bolt for the door. The emotional value we place on speeches is one reason they're prepared in advance, and that's where writing comes in.

It's a different category of writing than is done for books or Web sites, because speeches are designed to be heard rather than seen. Before jumping to the "hows" of speechwriting, memorize three essential points on what to do with it once it's written:

1. Rehearse the speech--out loud and preferably with a trusted small audience--before going public. This rule is vital not only for the practice and for raising your comfort level, but to ensure the speech actually fits the alloted time parameters.

2. Make the speech--don't read it. Keeping your eyes on the text will interfere with your making eye contact with the audience, and thus will reduce their interest in you.

3. Don't get obsessed with memorizing the written speech word for word. Concentrating too hard on your memory can result in your voice slipping into a monotone; moreover, the "word for word" approach can lead to getting completely lost if a single "next word" is forgotten.

As for the actual writing:

Arrange your speech in a meaningful order: chronological if one story is the focus; or from most important point to least; or on the alliteration or acronym approach (key words all beginning with the same letter or with letters that spell another word).

Use lots of anecdotes and examples. Good in any writing, this is particularly important where your audience may not have a copy of the text to save--facts and principles attached to real "happenings" will stick best in their minds. Don't be afraid to tell stories on yourself; audiences love it!

Don't force square pegs into round holes. Relate every sentence to the main theme. Don't include irrelevant jokes or anecdotes just for their entertainment value.

Avoid highly technical terms and words of over three syllables; they're hard to process when delivered verbally.

You can be more casual than with materials written for others to read; don't exchange everyday conversation for technically perfect grammar. (Of course, don't get so casual that people wonder if you finished high school!)

Remember the principle of "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; tell 'em; tell 'em what you told 'em." Summarize your key point(s) at the beginning and again at the end.

Choose your first and last sentences especially carefully; grab your audience's attention at the beginning, and end with a strong takeaway point.

The takeaway point for this article is: No one's really waiting eagerly for some stupid remark they can use against you for the rest of your life. Don't let perfectionism ruin your dinner!

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