Monday, November 16, 2009

Speechwriting won't kill you

They say most people are less afraid of dying than speaking in public. That caused Jerry Seinfeld to observe that the person delivering the eulogy may be the only one at a funeral who envies the corpse.

For many communicators, that sense of dread extends to speechwriting assignments. But don’t panic.

Whether you’re putting together a few comments for yourself or writing a keynote for the CEO, use these rules to write better speeches and make ghostwriting less scary.

Always …
remember that speeches are about ideas, not just words. Know what you’re trying to communicate before you write. Focus on 1-3 messages. That’s all the audience will remember anyway.

forget the audience. Understand their interests, needs and expectations. Cast messages from the perspective of the receiver, not the sender. Why should the listener care about what you have to say?

Always …
make it personal. They won’t care until they know you do. Tell stories. Use examples from your life. Share experiences. Use humor when it makes sense; laughter creates a powerful bond.

Never …
talk too long. Have a strong beginning and a strong ending, and keep them close together. No one says, “I wish she had spoken longer.” Shoot for 15-20 minutes – tops. The Gettysburg Address was three minutes long.

Always …
think like a lawyer. State your proposition and make your case. Use facts and examples to prove your point.

Never …
let your visuals overshadow you. If you must use slides, keep them simple. Don’t let slides be a crutch and never read from them.

Always …
use statistics sparingly. Numbers are powerful, but too many can numb your audience. Choose just a few that will be memorable or surprising. Use comparisons to help your audience relate. “That’s deeper than the Grand Canyon.”

… overuse quotes. A few are OK, as long as they’re relevant. As Emerson said, “I hate quotations … tell me what you think.”

... write out loud. Writing for the ear is different than writing for the eye. Keep things simple. Avoid long, complex sentences. Read your worlds aloud - even if it annoys your cube mate.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Help for the exec who can't say 'No'

I once worked with a Fortune 100 CEO I affectionately called "The CEO who couldn't say no."

He answered to a demanding board. His company had operations, customers and employees in almost every country. He was a smart guy and a dynamic leader. He was a skilled communicator, who truly believed that communicating was a critical part of his job and a means to accomplishing everything in his all-encompassing job description. Great, right?

So here's the downside: He said yes to just about every speaking opportunity his secretary could crowbar into his schedule. Employee meeting in Florida? Yes. Ribbon cutting in India? Sure. A few words at Joe's retirement party? Absolutely! Sales conference, press event, trade show? Yes, yes and yes. Service club meeting in a town in which his company no significant presence? What the heck.

Word spread quickly that he was a willing and capable speaker, so the number of invitations multiplied. With the support of his VP of Communications, I developed a simple Speech Opportunity Evaluation Tool to help separate the wheat from the chaff ... or in this case the important stakeholders from the Rotarians.

The tool helps speakers, communications advisers and speechwriters evaluate speaking opportunities along five dimensions:

1. Audience. Is the audience made up of influential people important to the organization’s success? Is the audience size appropriate (i.e., are we reaching enough people to make it worth the executive’s time?)?

2. Venue. Is this a premium venue (e.g., top conference, forum, university, etc.)? Who else is on the program? Who else has spoken at this forum in the past?

3. Relevant message. Do we have something important and relevant to say on the topic being covered or to the audience assembled? Is the topic important to us? Is the executive an authority on the topic?

4. Ancillary opportunities. Can this speech be merchandised through reprints, publications, web postings, etc., or can valuable publicity be gained through the executive’s participation? Are there other things that the executive can accomplish in the same geographic area as the speaking opportunity (e.g., customer meetings, editorial board meetings, media interviews, employee location visits, etc.)?

5. Availability. Is the executive’s schedule open? If not, how does the importance of this opportunity stack up against other scheduled events? If not, should we consider offering a substitute?

The tool helped us inject a little discipline in the CEO's decision-making process. Sometimes it worked; sometimes he thanked us for our input as he headed out for the Optimist Club luncheon.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Last year I had trouble typing “social media.”

It kept coming out “SoCal Media,” which was not intended as an editorial comment on the trendiness of these new communications tools. Now I’m blogging.

Today I’m getting ready to attend my fourth major communications conference of 2009. I don’t need to compare the conference programs side-by-side to state with total confidence that social media has been the most popular kid at each of these parties.

No wonder. This new kid is attractive, interesting and a great dancer. But you can’t dance every dance with the same partner, no matter how attractive. Sometimes Justin or Beyonce have the right moves, but sometimes Travolta, Fred or Ginger are better partners.

Some of today’s social media tools are cool. Some are silly. Some are passing fancies and some will become important tools of our trade, as relevant and useful as websites, e-mails, face-to-face and the printed page.

Social media isn’t a silver bullet. It’s not a panacea or a solution to every problem. Just because we can use social media applications doesn’t mean we always should. Social media isn’t the answer. But it can – and should – be evaluated and applied as part of an integrated, multichannel communications strategy.