Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Where did you get your storytelling chops? (aka, skills)
Probably like most people, it began at my mother’s knee, with bedtime stories. But I was always keen on reading. I read everything from stories about cowardly dragons, to boarding schools, to Agatha Christie murder mysteries. I was introduced to Shakespeare by a forward-thinking teacher when I was 9 years old and I went straight home and read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream – I had no idea what was going on but I loved it anyway. Mainly though, I think I got my ‘chops’, as you say, from training as an historian. At university I was fully intent on studying literature, but was ‘seduced’ (not literally) by the history lecturer. I remember reading “The Origins of the Second World War” by AJP Taylor and thinking it read like a thriller – albeit a thriller where you could see what was coming in the end. I love the way historians can tell completely different stories using exactly the same set of facts, and I enjoy analysing the factors behind those choices.
What are the most important parts of a story, for a public speaker?
The beginning, the middle and the end are all vital! Sometimes I think speakers start off with good intentions, but then they lose track of their thread – if they ever had one. It’s important that the whole thing hangs together, so the audience can see why you’re going where you’re going. It packs a much bigger punch than a random collection of points, which is what many people seem to rely on.
What's something you wish more speakers would include in their storytelling?
Well I’m tempted to say – I wish they would have a point! So many people seem to have an agenda they are determined to get across, with little thought as to how this might be received by their audience. And if they are quoting facts, or even quotes for that matter, they should make very sure they get them right. Do your research, speakers!
What's something you wish more speakers would leave out of their storytelling?
PowerPoint slides – specially the ones that are massively animated, with black-outs, slide-ins and dissolving text. Just. Don’t!
You write speeches for executives. What does it take to put words in someone else's mouth?
I make sure I ‘hear’ their voices in my head while I’m writing. My previous boss was a straight-talking chap from Manchester, and if the voice in my head could not ‘hear’ him using a particular word, I would not include it. I write for very senior people – CEOs and their ilk – and generally the same rule applies. Listen to their voices in your head. My guys want to be seen as smart, switched-on and funny, so, whatever the subject matter, as long as it is appropriate, that is what we go for. Nobody, surely, wants to be seen as dull, long-winded and irrelevant! It’s also important to remember that as people of their status, they can ‘get away’ with saying things to certain audiences, sometimes to be provocative or sometimes to be amusing, so I am usually prepared to take a risk every now and then to keep things interesting.
What's the difference when you write a speech for yourself?
None really – I have the benefit of being familiar with my own personal experiences, so that makes life easier (I sometimes have to prise personal stuff out of my speakers), but, yes, I like to come across as smart, switched-on and funny too. I think British people typically have a self-deprecatory sense of humour, and a little bit of that works nicely, though you don’t want to over-do these things. In a couple of weeks’ time I am going to try to give a short speech at my mother’s funeral, if I am up to it – and that is going to be tough -- but I will try to remember to include a few funny things, because she had a wonderful sense of humour.
Do you have a favorite speech or talk to which we can point our readers? What is it and why is it your favorite?
Well it’s a bit of a cliché for someone who studies US civil rights history, but it would have to be a Martin Luther King speech. Not ‘I have a dream’ though, mine would be The Mountaintop. There is a remarkable prescience about that speech, given that King was assassinated the very next day. His delivery was passionate and there are some beautifully poetic lines in it ... “like anybody I would like to live a long life, longevity has its place... but I’m not concerned about that now, I just want to do God’s will... and he has allowed me to go to the mountain... and I have looked over and I have seen the promised land... and I may not get there with you... but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So I’m not worried about anything...” etc etc.
If you knew you could not fail, what kind of speech or presentation would you give? Tell us about the setting, audience, type of talk, content...
Not sure about this one. I love politics, but like many people, I am increasingly fed-up with the way politicians carry on. Few young people are interested at all and who can blame them? It’s a disaster - party politics is killing politics! In the UK, prime minister’s question time is a prime example. Everyone is shouting everyone else down, because its their ‘job’ to give the opposing point of view. There's no reasoned debate. These are able, intelligent, influential people and they carry on like a bunch of 5-year-olds. I guess I’d like to present a vision of how things could be different and work better. How? I really don’t know...
What's your public speaking pet peeve...as a speechwriter? As a member of the audience?
I absolutely loathe the type of speech that demands audience interaction. I don’t mind putting my hand up or being asked to vote on something, but when a speaker starts asking for vocal contributions and, worse, follows it up with “come on you can do better than that...” or some such exhortation, I switch off completely. In fact, I don’t switch off completely, but the little bit that’s left of me that is still switched on will be smouldering with hostility. Not good... I think it’s lazy.
Why is public speaking worth the effort, in your view?
It gives you the opportunity to make an immediate impact, influence people and form a personal connection – with eye contact instead of hiding behind twitter or your usual medium. It can be scary but it’s always worth it.
(UK Speechwriters Guild photo. Used with permission.)
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