Don’t alienate your audience

I shouldn’t even have to say it, really. I mean it’s like Speech-Giving 101: Don’t alienate your audience.

Today’s story stems from a comedy show I saw this weekend, one star comedian doing his thing at 10:15 on a Saturday night in the middle of the Connecticut woods. Now, granted, it ain’t Broadway. But nobody forced him to book the show. He chose to be there.

And we, the audience, also chose to be there. We knew it was a 10:15 show on a Saturday night in the middle of the woods. We bought the tickets; we wanted to be there, to hear him.

Well, apparently not enough of us wanted that—the gig was far from sold out. But the people he was complaining to—we had bought the damn tickets. All he had to do was

bring us the funny.

Yet he started his set by complaining about being there. I don’t think I was the only person in the audience who felt put off by that. I’ve seen him three times now, so I know how good he can be. But this set—not so funny.

Don’t bring your bad mood to the mic

Now, you may be thinking this advice will never apply to you, since you have no desire to do an hour-long stand-up comedy set. Heck, you even wince when people ask you do deliver a 10-minute speech. But I’ve seen plenty of business speakers alienate their audience.

Stomp onstage, papers flying in your wake, and start reading your speech for the first time. That’s another pro tip: Don’t read your speech out loud for the first time during the event. Have a little more respect for the audience than that.

Don’t begin your speech by ad libbing—as I swear one of my speakers once did—”I’d rather be talking to you about a business topic, but this is what they gave me to say.” (P.S. it was a business topic—and one that would bite him in the butt less than two years later.)

Even if you’re speaking about something you have less than zero passion for (I once wrote a speech about the chemical composition of makeup), your audience is excited to hear your thoughts. Reflect some of that excitement back; be happy to be there. And—as one speaker I know added silently—happy to leave. And in between those two points? You guessed it: happy.

Grumble all you want on your own time. But while you’re at an event, give the people what they want: You and your wisdom.


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The Gettysburg bullets

In her very funny book about a speechwriter’s lot, What I Saw at the Revolution, Peggy Noonan reconstructs what Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address might have looked like if it had to go through a modern-day vetting process. Look it up; it’s hysterical.

I thought for sure by now someone would have bullet-pointed the speech. I found this PowerPoint deck by Peter Norvig—some bullets in there. I hate PowerPoints almost as much as I hate bullets.

Here’s Norvig’s summary slide, for those of you who don’t click on links (spouse, WTF?) But, really, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen “four score and seven years ago” rendered as a bar chart.

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 5.51.53 PM


The point I hate

  • Bullet points.
  • Hate ’em.
  • Can’t create linkages between ideas.
  • Can’t develop new metaphors.
  • Can only communicate lists.
  • Lists not inherently interesting.

Seriously, I hate bullet points. Sometimes I have a client where I’m writing lovely speeches for one executive and they ask if I’ll write for another one too. Of course I say yes; I’m in the client-pleasing business. And then they’ll say, “It’ll be easy—he only wants bullet points.”

The thing is, I may have mentioned this—I hate bullet points. You can’t develop new ideas with bullets, because whatever you bullet has to connect with something that’s already in the speaker’s head. Otherwise, it’s just word salad on the page. So you can’t develop new metaphors, you can’t link ideas to one another except if the linkages are already glaringly apparent.

I once ran across an executive who deconstructed his speeches even further. He would take the stage with one page of notes. The upper left quadrant of the page contained a bulleted list of welcoming sentences; across from that some bullets reminding him of stories he liked to tell; the lower left would be a list of various points he might like to make; and the lower right a list of his favorite quotations. As I understand it (I only “wrote” for the guy once and never went to hear him speak), he would create his speech on the spot, assembling the various components until he’d filled the allotted time.

That’s not a speech, that’s a word-salad bar.

Speeches are more than collections of sounds. If people have agreed to listen to you, you have an obligation to give them something worth thinking about. Something more than “What was that about?”

So I hate bullets.

My granddaddy, Socrates

When pop culture meets, well, culture culture the results can be unintentionally hilarious.

Jennifer Lopez plays a high school teacher in her latest movie, The Boy Next Door. At one point, the hunk of the title brings her a gift: A leatherbound book with gilt-edged pages – a volume that would have been right at home in Queen Victoria’s library. J-Lo demurs that she can’t accept such an expensive gift. “This is a first edition!” she says, checking inside.

One small problem. The book is very clearly marked “The Iliad by Homer.”

See it for yourself here (you’ll have to sit through a 30-second ad, but trust me it’s worth it.)

Apologies if I’ve spoiled The Boy Next Door for you, but I don’t really think there’s a lot of overlap between my readership and J-Lo’s target demographic. Likewise probably not a lot of overlap between her viewership and classical scholars. What percentage of Americans even know that there was a famous Homer before The Simpsons?

While the dumbing-down of popular culture may spell the end of Civilization As We Know It, there’s an equally challenging trend I need to watch out for as a business writer: “smartening-up.” (Click to Tweet.)

The first time I was asked to write on the subject of Ethics, I went straight to the source: Aristotle. I mean, who better than “the father of Ethics”? Now, I’m no dummy – the speech wasn’t entirely about ancient Greek philosophy. I tied Aristotle to a contemporary event, in which journalism students had gotten caught cheating on an exam. And not just any exam…an Ethics exam.

It was a great speech. But it was not a great speech for that particular speaker. And in the end, that’s really all that matters. So I gave Aristotle the heave-ho in favor of material that better fit my executive’s brand. And the world became a more ethical place, at least for an hour.

LBJ knew this stuff innately. Maybe not Ethics, but brand-building. When his writers showed him a draft that used some words of wisdom from Socrates, he didn’t cut the quotation – the sentiment was too good. He just crossed out “Socrates” and substituted “my granddaddy.”

President Johnson was a smart man. He just didn’t want too many people to know it.

Of Starbucks & Speeches

I was waiting for my chai latte at Starbucks yesterday when the barista came over with a plastic cup full of thick, green glop.  My reaction: “Yuck!  Who would drink that?”

Then she swirled some whipped cream on top and I thought, “Hmm…I should order that sometime.”

Whether you’re delivering a speech or a Green Tea Frappucino, the whipped cream makes all the difference.

The thick, green glop of a business speech – lists of accomplishments, data points, facts – becomes much more palatable when paired with something the audience can relate to, like a story or a metaphor. 

Too many speakers shy away from the whipped cream.  They’re afraid it’ll make them seem less serious. The truth is, it’s what makes them memorable.

A trip in the Wayback Machine

I needed to find a financial services-related speech for a potential new client.  Problem is, although I’ve written a ton about financial services, most of it hasn’t been in speech form.  So I had to step into the Wayback Machine and I emerged in the year 1991.

Now, 20 years ago I was…well, 20 years younger, and 20 years less experienced as a speechwriter.  So I wasn’t exactly sure how well the writing would hold up.  But from the very first paragraph, it made me smile:

Many more books have been written about the financial industry in the last five years than are worth any serious person’s attention. While some of them may give you a sense of the industry, most are little better than supermarket tabloids. The most widely read book around [our firm] is Liar’s Poker. The plot is relatively simple: The boys from Animal House trade their togas for suits and go to work on Wall Street. It’s a sometimes funny book, with amusing caricatures. But The New York Times has it on the wrong best-seller list: the book is more fiction than fact.

That voice you hear, that’s unmistakably my client’s voice.  Gruff, opinionated, no patience for fools.  And of course he had been one of those “amusing caricatures” in Liar’s Poker.  We knew everyone in the room had read the book, so we dealt with the issue first thing.

Then, a few paragraphs later, some words that would work just as well in a speech dated 2011:

Many people entered the securities industry in the last decade expecting to be made millionaires before their skin cleared up. One commentator noted a few years ago that “one of the best ways to make money is to be standing around when large sums of cash are changing hands.” But most of the people whose skills consisted of merely “standing around” are now standing around in minimum-security prisons. The people who thrive at [our firm] – and elsewhere in the industry – are innovators, people who seek to participate meaningfully in the international flow of capital and investment.

Yes, I know it’s fashionable these days to trash the financial services industry.  And yes, there have been excesses – no doubt.  But without some intermediary to funnel capital from those who have it to those who need it, the business world couldn’t exist.

Anyway, I enjoyed the speech.  I hope my potential client does, too.

“I played an important role, but not the determinant role”

As counselor to John F. Kennedy, Jr., Ted Sorensen was present at the creation of some of the most stirring oratory produced in my lifetime.  And that’s about all he would ever admit to.  The first fact makes him one of the best speechwriters in modern times; the second makes him one of the classiest as well.  A life well worth emulating.  I’m grateful to have met him and heard him speak.

Be sure to watch the “Last Words” video feature embedded in the Times’ obituary.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Sorensen.


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Public Speaking

A lovely walking path follows the curves of the harbor across the street from San Diego’s convention center.  The path offers something for just about everyone: art (an arresting silver sculpture), nature (a small dog park with the prettiest dog-level drinking fountain I’ve ever seen), a reflecting pool (surrounding yet more art).  But the most interesting feature to me were the square granite plaques spaced every few feet along the path, with quotations engraved on them.

Now, San Diego is not the only city to do this: The public spaces in Manhattan’s Battery Park City feature passages by Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara, celebrating what one web site calls “the exhilarating spirit of New York City.”   But those passages are actually about New York City.  The quotations in San Diego’s park were not created for or about San Diego; the man who wrote the words never lived there.

From the written word to the art inspired by it, the entire park – its official name is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Promenade – celebrates the spirit and the vision of this great leader.  And the fact that San Diego has placed this tribute in such a prominent location, across the street from its Convention Center, where tens of thousands of tourists encounter it every day, gives even casual visitors a real sense of the culture and priorities of this beautiful city.

I can’t wait to go back.


Q: When is a blockbuster not a blockbuster?
A: When you can’t tell anyone about it.

I walked into a meeting recently and the client greeted me with, “We’ve just been singing your praises!” (Well, don’t stop on my account.)  It seems a series of profiles I’d written was generating spectacular page-views on their intranet.  One in particular had done “blockbuster” numbers – 12 times their average readership.

It’s the kind of result you want to stand on the rooftops and crow about – or at least put in a marketing email to current and prospective clients.Writing that gets results is rare. Not to mention valuable.

But I can’t.  Sensitive subject, confidential, etc., etc. This client doesn’t have a problem with my telling people I wrote the pieces…I just can’t say what they’re about.

Same sort of thing happened a long time ago with speech I wrote for a nonprofit Executive Director that got published in Vital Speeches of the Day. It was my first Vital speech, and that’s quite a milestone for folks in my profession. The client was pretty happy about it, too.

Naturally, I asked if I could use it in my marketing and you could have knocked me over with a feather when she said no. Said she didn’t want anyone to know that she hadn’t written the speech herself. And yes, of course, that’s her choice to make. But I went on to write even more awesome speeches for the woman, and it kills me that I can’t show them to anyone else.

Occupational hazard, I guess.

Fear, Fun & “Foam Man”

An interesting confluence of events has me thinking about the nexus between fear and success.  I’m reading Seth Godin’s remarkable book Linchpin, in which he discusses, among other things, the biological manifestations of fear that can keep us from achieving success.  And then there’s my friend the 50-something woman who has decided to teach herself to do this.  No, that’s not her in the freeline skating video – it’s some crazy teenage boy.  Or perhaps you’ll see him as a young man with great coordination and little fear of grave bodily harm.  And that’s the point.

My skating friend injured herself yesterday, but apparently that has not dimmed her enthusiasm for the sport.  She’s clearly having too much fun to waste time being afraid.

And that reminded me of “Foam Man,” whose story I read years ago in a piece in The New Yorker by Jane & Michael Stern.  I whisked the story into my quotation file because I just knew it would come in handy for a speech someday. It took nearly 15 years, but I finally found it the perfect home, with an executive welcoming a bunch of college students to a workshop during which they would be evaluated as potential recruits:

As I was thinking about what to say to you tonight, I remembered an article I read a few years ago in The New Yorker. It was an article about a group of people who signed up for an experience that promised to be exciting, if a little bit intimidating, but which, when it was over, would leave them with a huge sense of accomplishment. I imagine there might be some people in this room who identify with these emotions.

The experience the people in this article had signed up for was bull-riding school. These were not professional cowboys – they weren’t even people aspiring to become professional cowboys. They were just a group of men and women who, for various reasons, wanted the experience of sitting on top of a two-ton bull and staying there for at least eight seconds as the bull did everything it could to shake them off. It should be noted that the students were there voluntarily; the bulls were not.

The part of the article that stuck with me was a story about one student. This guy had shopped for his bull-riding wardrobe very carefully. He had purchased the regulation cowboy shirt and jeans – but he bought them eight sizes too big. And then he stuffed all of the extra space in his shirt and pants with yards of foam rubber. The people who wrote the article said he looked like the Michelin Man. But he didn’t care. He knew he was likely to be bucked off the bull, and he wanted to make sure he’d be safe.

So what happened? I’ll quote directly from the article: “After Foam Man was bucked off his first bull he bounced like a Super Ball, then came down right on top of his unprotected head.” The writers added, “Foam Man didn’t return.”

It’s a great story. But you have to wonder why Foam Man was there in the first place. He knew staying on that bull would be challenging – and he knew he was likely to fail before he succeeded. Why sign up for an experience and then try to insulate yourself – in the case of Foam Man, quite literally – from what the experience provides?

You’d never catch me looking like Foam Man, mostly because you’d never catch me signing up for bull-riding school in the first place. But I suspect I create a cushy foam lining around many other experiences – a lining that keeps me from engaging myself fully. It may keep me from getting bruised, but perhaps it also keeps me from giving my all, flat out – and from getting the most out of everything I do.

So I wonder…what could we all accomplish if we packed away the foam, faced the fear, and accepted the fun?