Functional words, the plain brown wrapper of language

“That is the worst book title ever!”

I had just told a writer friend about one of the best books I’ve read lately—the best how-to guide to speechwriting I’ve ever encountered. So I have to admit the vehemence of her reaction startled me.

But I also have to admit she’s right. The title uses functional words at best; it’s not at all unique. (Yes, I’ll tell you the title in a minute.) “At least—” she begged, “at least tell me there’s a subtitle.” I pulled out my iPad and checked: I would not win any points there.functional words: the plain brown wrappers of language

The book in question is Chris Anderson’s really marvelous (you’ll have to take my word for it) TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking.

Functional words indeed. But this plain brown wrapper of a title hides not just great advice, but probably hundreds of examples of that advice in action: sparkling, compelling stories pulled from the best of the TED Talks. (And Anderson put together a handy playlist of the 53 talks he cites. Next time you feel like listening to a TED Talk, you can’t go wrong with any of these.)

Anderson also offers suggestions on rehearsing—he’s as big a proponent of it as I am—dealing with nerves, and even choosing the right outfit. But what makes his advice even more valuable is his perspective—he may be the Curator of TED Talks, but at heart he’s still the guy in the audience, listening for something that will catch his attention or move him in an unexpected way.

A pretty good storyteller himself, Anderson frequently stresses the importance of using details to make the story come alive, as here:

“Offer the right level of detail. Too little and the story is not vivid. Too much and it gets bogged down.”

So how did this book on great writing end up with such a bland and repetitive title? Perhaps no one at the publishing house bothered to read it. But remember the old adage:

You can’t judge a book by the words on its cover.

That is what the old adage says, right?

  • speeches
  • storytelling