Cutting remarks — when clients edit (sigh)

When clients edit, the result is often not prettyStrange things can happen to speeches when clients edit them.

I’ve been writing speeches for over 25 years; you’d think I’d be used to this by now. And largely I am. I don’t let myself get too attached to any piece of work. I’m very clear that it’s my clients’ work, not mine. So when they ask me to shorten, I cut with a razor blade, delicately: It’s amazing how much you can tighten up writing by taking out a word here, a sentence there.

But when clients edit a speech themselves, they whack through it like Indiana Jones in the jungle. Was Indiana Jones ever in a jungle? Well, if he were he wouldn’t care what foliage he ruined; he’d just be trying to clear a path. And I have to confess, if I were escaping Nazis I would probably not be worried about aesthetics either. But as far as I know, no one’s ever shortened a speech to escape Nazis.

When clients edit what they don’t understand

I recently wrote a speech for a new client. Heard back from the staff person: the client loved it, the people who’d booked the client loved it, the audience loved it. Hooray!

And then I opened up the final remarks. All the facts were there. But the story I’d constructed around them was nowhere to be found. And I have to say, I was sad.

The event organizers requested a shorter piece. If I had been there, I would gladly have wielded my razor blade. Instead, someone used a machete. They cut out all the story, leaving only a jagged trail of facts.

Look, facts are essential. The provide proof; they give your story weight. But facts alone do not tell a story.

Analogies are not just the poetic bits that hold the facts in place. They are the mechanism that transports facts into the listener’s brain. They help us synthesize information—something we have to do before we can draw on it. There’s a reason our elementary school math teacher made us figure out how many apples Joan had ended up with if she started with four and Johnny gave her two more. Yes, you may get the same answer just by adding the numbers (did everybody get 6?), but it gets stored into a different part of your brain. Because: story.

Same reason so many of us learned French by following the travails of a young man as he encountered the world. In the textbook’s first chapter, he made a phone call. Feel free to recite along with me:

Allo. C’est Philippe LeDoux?
–Oui, c’est moi.

Memorize all the vocabulary words you want; they’ll fly out of your head as soon as the test is over. But put those words in the context of a story, and they stick with you for life. C’est vrai, n’est-ce pas?

Our brain organizes information in story form. But why make it do all that extra work? Tell the story your way and your listeners’ brains will store it your way. People will not only remember what you’ve said; they’ll act on it.

If you’ve got too much to say in the time allotted, don’t cut out the story. Cut down on the content. Audiences can only take in two or three ideas per speech. You can force feed them more, of course. They’ll sit there politely and listen. But they won’t remember a thing.

The client was happy; the organizers were happy; the audience was, reportedly, happy as well. But I know they could have been happier. My client could have had more of an impact. A missed opportunity. Tant pis.


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