“You can’t fake authenticity” — a new leader emerges from tragedy

If you haven’t seen the poised, passionate, and extremely purposeful speech that Florida teenager Emma González, a survivor of the latest school shooting, gave last weekend stop reading right now and watch it.

Many people have commented on González’s speech, but I wanted to share one tweet in particular with you. It comes from Christopher Henry, a speechwriter from Canada. He wrote:

you can't fake authenticity

“You can’t fake authenticity in speeches. This is as authentic as it gets.”

I agree with him 100%. Anyone with a heart who watches the video can see that her tears and anger are genuine, as is her passion to change whatever needs to be changed so that no other school needs to endure what hers has.

Authenticity and preparedness

But notice something about this authenticity, please: She has written her speech in advance. She says it’s her “AP Gov notes,” but you can see by how often she lowers her eyes that she’s reading from those handwritten pages.

I run into so many speakers who equate “authenticity” with ad-libbing. “Just give me some talking points,” they say. “I’ll figure out the exact words when I get onstage.” If you’re one of those speakers, can you speak as eloquently as this without notes? By the end of the speech, I feel like González’s audience is ready to follow her wherever she wants to lead them. Do you get that kind of reaction from your off-the-cuff remarks?

I would also bet good money that González rehearsed her speech. Probably more than once. Pay attention to how she modulates her emotions. How she pauses for applause and cheers. How she intensifies the pace and volume when she wants to rouse the crowd. You don’t get that by shuffling through pages of your speech in the back of a town car on your way to the venue. You need to speak your text out loud. Preferably standing up.

“Ah, but if I rehearse,” I’ve heard clients say, “I won’t sound authentic.” No—you’ll sound like you haven’t read through your text. Isn’t that worse? Rehearse your prepared remarks until they don’t sound wooden. Until you can say the words and mean them.

Emma González shows us it’s possible to be both prepared and authentic. To rehearse and to bring genuine emotion to the podium. As Christopher Henry noted in his tweet, “This is what a leader looks like.”

As proud as I am of this young woman who spoke with such clarity and grace, I wish circumstances had not brought her into the spotlight.

The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High are now, sadly, authorities on the real consequences of our inane gun laws. They have a platform and they’re leveraging it, honoring their fallen friends and teachers by trying to shame our lawmakers into changing the laws. I half-believe they might succeed. In fact, when I hear Emma González’s speech, it’s hard to imagine anything can stop them.


Make your ideas memorable by embedding them in stories. Discover how in my free six-day writing challenge beginning February 26th.

[this piece originally published on LinkedIn]

What’s wrong with hiring a speechwriter?

Q: Why do people think it’s a bad thing to hire a speechwriter?

A: Damned if I know.

I don’t want the CEOs of the companies I invest in to spend their precious time scribbling speeches. I want them to be out there CEO-ing, using their talents to do what they do best. Hire me and let me do what I do best.hire a speechwriter when you need a word expert

Now, personally, I can’t imagine hiring someone to write a speech for me. I do it for other people; when the need arises, I do it for myself. But if my plumbing should spring a leak, I’m certainly not going to fire up the solder gun myself. (If that’s what you do for leaky pipes.) I call the plumber, stat.

My motto has always been, “Hire the best people you can find and pay them what they’re worth.” But I might be slightly biased in that regard.

Outsource so you can focus on the big stuff

Now, you can’t outsource everything. A speechwriter can write stirring sentences, but they’ll only be effective and memorable if you deliver them well.

As we saw in the first presidential debate between Secretary Clinton and Mr. T, there’s a reason candidates prepare and (ahem) rehearse. By the way, if you think writing your own speech is a get-out-of-rehearsal-free card, think again. You still have to stand up and say the words out loud, many times.

I imagine that most of the people who think it’s a bad thing to hire a speechwriter have never had to stand up in front of a crowd (much less a crowd with cameras) and speak coherently for more than a minute. It’s not an easy thing to do.

One of the things that separates great leaders from technocrats is that the leaders know how to delegate—and who to trust with the work. In the decades since he left the White House, Jimmy Carter has proven to be a great human being and humanitarian. But as President, he proved to be the Micromanager-in-Chief, even concerning himself with minutiae like tennis court schedules.

Still, he did have a speechwriter. More about that another day.

What makes a good speech? Some universal truths

When I say I blog daily, I do mean every day–Sunday included. The Almighty may have rested on the seventh day but Seth Godin doesn’t. And I figure if it’s good enough for Seth, it’s good enough for me.

But regular readers may have noticed that my weekend blogs usually involve lighter fare—pop culture, art, or humor.

What makes a good speech? That's one of the topics Elaine covers on Joan Garry's podcast.I’m making an exception today, because I just can’t wait to introduce you to Joan Garry’s podcast, Nonprofits are Messy. Joan has gained a reputation as the “Dear Abby” of the nonprofit world—darn! I forgot to tell her that “Dear Abby” and her twin sister “Ann Landers” were good friends with Warren Buffett. (I think she would enjoy that bit of trivia.) Anyway, Joan’s show has quickly become iTunes’ #1 rated podcast in the nonprofit space.

So when Joan invited me to be a guest on her show, to talk to her tribe of nonprofit leaders about how to give a good speech, I said yes in a heartbeat. She released my episode today and I think even people in the—gasp—for-profit world can learn something from our conversation.

So how do you give a good speech?

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that variations of the word “storytelling” cropped up more than once in the course of the conversation. Or that I stressed the value of rehearsal.

See? In many ways, a speech is a speech is a speech, no matter what the content.

Nonprofit speakers may have an edge on emotion, but they’re in the business of saving lives and building communities. Craft a story out of that kind of work and it’s easy to tug at your listeners’ heartstrings. And when the money you raise tonight determines whether you’ll meet your payroll tomorrow, it’s easy to get passionate about your story, and to move your listeners to action.

But every speaker should be passionate about the story they tell. And every speech should move listeners to action. Your for-profit business may not be about finding a cure for AIDS or eradicating homelessness, but you’ve got an inspiring story to tell somewhere, or people wouldn’t have chosen to work for you. And to stay.

Why are you passionate about your work? Whatever kind of organization you run, that’s a story your listeners need to hear. And it’s definitely the basis of a good speech. (Listen to the podcast for more!)

Rhinoceroses and rehearsal: A cautionary tale

Do you know what they call a group of rhinoceroses?

And no, I don’t know who “they” are, really. Those modern-day Adams who get to create nouns out of nothing but a fact and a bit of whimsy. Fact: Crows gather in groups. Whimsy: Hey—crows look sort of like ravens. And Poe, who wrote that poem about the raven, also wrote about murders. So let’s call it “a murder of crows”!

I mean, I don’t really know. That’s my own combination of fact and whimsy. But I digress. Rhinos.

Rhinoceros (public domain image)

Rhinoceroses can run at speeds of up to 35 m.p.h.—by my calculations, that’s over 3,000 feet per minute. But their tiny eyes can’t see more than 100 feet in front of them. A crucial disparity there.

This can—and I imagine quite often does—cause difficulties when it’s exercise time for the herd. So marrying fact and whimsy, “they” call a group of rhinos a “crash.”

What does this have to do with business?

Business executives—especially the kind who get asked to give speeches—tend to be very busy people. (You know this because “busy” is built right into the word “business.”) As a matter of fact, if “they” gave me the power to create a noun for a group of businesspeople, I would call them “a hurry of professionals.” But I digress (again).

Naturally, hurrying professionals look for ways to streamline their busy days. They outsource tasks of all kinds, from booking airline tickets to writing speeches. But you can’t outsource giving a speech. And you can’t streamline the preparations for it, either.

When you rush onto a stage without proper rehearsal, you crash. Just like those racing rhinoceroses, your physical abilities outrun your senses. Just because you can read from a page someone hands you as you stride to the podium doesn’t mean you should.

Whether you’re speaking from bullet points (which I never recommend) or reading a prepared text—even one you wrote for yourself—you need time to let the ideas sink into your brain. That way, when the ideas come back out your mouth onstage they’ll sound like your ideas and not like something you (or someone else) thought up a week ago. Take the stage unprepared and you leave yourself open to failure in so many ways. When you know your material backwards and forwards, then technical glitches won’t faze you. Neither will the CEO wandering into your presentation.

That happened to one of my clients, an executive who asked me to coach her and then was astounded when I had the temerity to ask her to run through her speech twice in rehearsal. The looks she shot me would surely have cowed someone who actually worked for her (yet another perk of flying in as a consultant). But she later told me that if she hadn’t known the material so well, seeing the CEO walk in during her speech would have thrown her off her game.

I looked for video of crashing rhinos for you, but I couldn’t find any. I’m kind of glad about that: I’m not sure how someone could film a rhinoceros stampede without ending up in the middle of it. But I did find a British band called Crash of Rhinos. The sample track on their website starts off deceptively soft, but watch out for your ears when the drums kick in.

Don’t be in a crash of rhinos. Aim for “a success of speakers” instead.

Rehearsing a speech: Why and how

If you think rehearsing your speech is frivolous, self-indulgent, a waste of your time—think again.

If you’re fortunate enough to be asked to give a speech, you’ve been given a valuable gift: the time and attention of the people in your audience. People just as busy as you, who set their jobs and lives aside so they could listen to what you have to say. You owe it to them to say something worth hearing.

You also owe it to yourself. It’s fair to assume that most of the people in your audience have never met you, maybe never even heard of you. What kind of impression do you want to give them?

But let’s say you don’t care what people think of you. (Really?) There’s also a business case for being a great speaker: Your presentation can enhance your company’s brand…or not. Your choice.

So you’re going to rehearse, right? Seems to me I owe you some advice on how to do that.

Early in my career, my boss booked me a session with a speech coach. He figured I ought to know my job from both sides of the lectern. The coach handed me a text I’d never seen before, pointed a video camera at me, and listened. I’ve acted since I was a kid, so I figured I’d aced the exercise. I read fluidly, with lots of emphasis and tonal variation. Amazing!

When I finished, the coach asked me one question: “So what did you just talk about?”

I had no freaking clue.

So that’s the first rule of speech-making. It’s not just about reading the words; it’s about paying attention to what you’re saying. If you have to look at the speech text, don’t talk while you’re looking at it. Grab a phrase at a time, raise your head and talk to your audience. You want to aim for a little more flow than the sublime Ruth Bader Ginsburg when President (Bill) Clinton nominated her for the Supreme Court, but I’m guessing she hadn’t had a ton of time to rehearse. Still, this illustrates the technique very clearly.

But with enough rehearsing, you shouldn’t need to reference the text that frequently.

Best techniques for rehearsing

At the risk of overwhelming you, I’ll point to this list of seven rehearsal techniques, put together by the folks at Public Words. It combines techniques you might expect (“rehearse the content”) with some exercises more at home in the world of improv. If you’ve got the guts to go for it, I absolutely recommend “babbling through” the speech—delivering the content with no recognizable words. It forces you to think not just about what you intend to say but about the emotions associated with those words. A great way to enliven your speaking style.

In terms of getting familiar with the material, try writing it out—yes, I mean on paper. Handwriting gets the words into your brain through a different neural pathway than when you take them in visually.

Also, don’t just “stand and deliver” your speech, as you might in the actual setting. Try rehearsing the words while you’re walking the dog, doing chores, taking a shower. Move your body—do some exercises or just swing your arms from side to side. Obviously you’re not going to speak like that in front of your audience, any more than you would babble incoherently. But movement will put the words into your body in a more relaxed way. And when it’s time to deliver the real thing, your body will remember that and you won’t feel so wooden. Even if you’re scared.

And that’s the real reason to rehearse. Because when you know your material backwards and forwards, nothing that happens can throw you.

More than you know: the case for paragraphs

What’s the difference between bullet points and a speech composed of full sentences linked together in paragraphs?

It’s the difference between listening to music on your iPod or listening to a streaming service like Pandora.

Think about it: The music on your iPod, or your phone, or your wristwatch, or [insert name of gadget we have no idea we require until the moment it’s invented] is there because you put it there. You put it there because you like it. Those devices merely repeat what you already know.

Your ideas, only fresher

But go to Pandora and create a unique station based on the music you like. Say you create a Frank Sinatra station. They’ll play you lots of Sinatra, but they’ll also play you Harry Connick, Jr. and Josh Groban and even a smattering of newer artists you haven’t heard of yet. Maybe some indie musicians like my friend Dane Vannatter.

With Pandora, you’re still in your wheelhouse—it’s the music you love. But you get to hear it in a new way. You get new inputs.

That’s what a great speech can do that talking points can’t. Full sentences, paragraphs following paragraphs, can give you a new lens on your ideas. This keeps your thinking fresh. Your audience stays more engaged because you’re more engaged.

And if you’re even slightly nervous about speaking, you’ll never lose your train of thought with a fully scripted speech—it’s all there for you. Just add rehearsal(s) and go.

 

The 13th draft

As a speechwriter, I’ve always taught my clients that the best way to ensure a concise, compelling speech is to let me write it plan their remarks in advance. That way they stay on course. Nothing kills the audience’s interest faster than a digression.

Sometimes I get pushback: “But I don’t know how to read a speech.” “I always sound so wooden with anything but bullet points.” The best response to this—it never fails with a certain type of ambitious speaker: “You’ll have to learn to read a speech if you want to do a TED Talk.”

How do you learn to read a speech? You practice. And if that seems like a waste of your valuable time, you should know that the best speakers all make the time. Because it’s that important.

Here’s one of my favorite stories about rehearsing a speech. It comes from the Fortune article about Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book Executive Presence I’ve been writing about for the past two days:

When Hewlett was a graduate student at Harvard many years ago, her faculty advisor was the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, a famously riveting public speaker. His secret, he once told her, was that he rewrote every speech 12 times. Then, he said, “I introduce a note of spontaneity in the thirteenth draft.”

The good news is that most executives have people like me to write their drafts; they only have to rehearse them.

Twelve or thirteen times? Hey—that’s what chauffeur-driven rides to the airport are for. And if your colleagues, spouse, and kids get sick of hearing the speech, there’s always the dog.Or the smart phone.

Be prepared

Back in the early days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, I came home and found my ex all jazzed up after watching Hillary give a speech on TV. “She was wonderful!” my ex gushed. “And she wasn’t even speaking from notes!”

“No notes is not a good thing,” I responded. “What do you think pays our mortgage?”

I’m a speechwriter so, yes, I may be a bit biased here. I would never step in front of a group of people without prepared remarks. (Knowing more about Secretary Clinton all these years later, I’m betting she wouldn’t either.)

But no speech, no matter how well-written, will do its job effectively if you don’t rehearse. And a big thank-you to Chris Anderson, the Curator of TED Talks, for saying that loud and clear.

Anderson calls lack of preparation exactly what it is: Rude. The people in your audience have taken time out of their busy day to hear you; the least you can do is spend some of your valuable time to give them a well-reasoned, well-delivered speech.

The best client I’ve had in over 25 years of writing speeches takes rehearsal very seriously. He wants his speeches locked two weeks in advance. Two weeks! Other speechwriters turn green with envy when I tell them that.

Many speakers press for changes until the last minute—and if you’re dealing with a hot-button issue or a current event, that constant updating may be justified. But it takes a very skilled performer to incorporate new language on the fly. So pursuing perfection on the page often leads to imperfection on the stage. Which is more important to you? To your audience?

That kind of behavior doesn’t fly with the TED folks. Unprepared, unrehearsed speakers don’t get to climb on their iconic black stages.

Of course, TED has the clout to enforce that rule; most speechwriters don’t. So let’s get this message viral. Share this post or the linked article with your networks: #preparedspeakersrock