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Speak like the best of them.


Heard any good speeches lately?

As an association executive, you can probably answer yes. Many associations routinely feature the nation's top public speakers at their conventions and seminars. But many of the same people who invite these superb speakers and listen to their stirring remarks often wonder where great speeches come from.

Above and beyond anything else, great speeches still depend on the words. Think about FDR: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Or JFK: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Or Martin Luther King, Jr.: "I have a dream . . . ." The electronic age in which we live allows us to recapture images on film or videotape, but it's the words of Roosevelt and Kennedy and King that still live on in our minds.

Every good speech begins with the right words. And the words, inevitably, must be preceded by clear thinking and sound planning.

Write to the audience

The first consideration in finding the right words and constructing an effective speech is the audience. Ask certain questions to pin down for whom you're writing.

* Who is the audience?

* What do the members of the audience have in common?

* Why has the audience been brought together?

* Why have they invited me to speak?

* How much time do I have?

* Do they expect or want me to talk about a specific subject and, if so, what?

In other words: Who are these people and why are they here?

Identifying the audience and its personality as well as the setting and raison d'etre for the speech cannot be a cursory undertaking. The more you or your speech writer know about all of the questions listed above, the better your speech will be.

That's why it's important for you or your speech writer to talk to the host or inviting group first and ask these questions. The information you gather will also help determine the type of speech you deliver.

The situation may call for an inspirational speech or one that is more purely informational; a speech that boldly seeks to change minds or trigger a particular action from the audience or one that seeks merely to plant a seed of an idea in each listener; or a speech that is intimate and personal or one that is more detached and dispassionate.

For example, one might expect remarks to young people at a drug treatment center to be comforting and inspirational. Comments addressed to busy executives might be delivered in a challenging, quick, and engaging fashion. An address to longtime colleagues at a retirement dinner would be more intimate and personal.

Regardless of the type of address that is called for, waste no time in making a quick, clear, and simple connection. Find something in common with your listeners and lead with it.

For example, best-selling lawyer and novelist Scott Turow regales his audiences with an effective opener: a self-deprecating first-person account of the numerous disappointments and rejections he encountered before the runaway success of his breakthrough novel Presumed Innocent. It's a story to which anyone who has ever dreamed of success or known the sting of failure can relate. Turow immediately lifts the heavy mask of celebrity and connects with the audience on a human level.

Be careful with humor

Turow's technique reminds us that the all-important link with the audience can often be established with humor. Many speakers choose this route--sharing a joke or anecdote with the audience. But this technique is not as simple as it may seem.

Leading with a joke has become almost a cliche, and sometimes the joke can fall flat. Unless you've tried the joke or anecdote before with a similar audience and know it will trigger laughs, caution is the byword. Test the story out with a few friends or colleagues. Ask them to be particularly frank with you in assessing its impact.

Beyond humor, other audience-linking introductions can seduce listeners with comfortable and familiar words, images, concepts, and experiences. You don't have to be hokey or overly sentimental to tap these elements. All human beings have some common reference of shared experiences. Evoke memories of school days or some similar shared experience, and you're bound to reach most of your listeners.

This common-bond approach follows a basic rule: Begin the dialogue with your audience on a recognizable, friendly, and agreeable terrain. Before you do anything else, get the audience's attention and create the right atmosphere.

A three-act play

You've set the stage with an introduction that allows you to connect with the audience. Now the play begins.

A speech is actually a three-act play. Each part of the speech must be clear and distinct, but at the same time, the three parts must work as one. The theme is what holds all three parts together.

A successful speech cannot exist without a theme. The theme is the central, unifying idea around which the speech is built.

The best speeches can be summarized in a single sentence. Often, an even shorter single phrase within the speech will come to symbolize or express the theme.

The American Bar Association, Chicago, identifies a theme for its annual Law Week observances that becomes the basis for numerous addresses delivered throughout the nation. This year, the ABA theme is "Justice for All--All for Justice."

If you cannot sit down and pinpoint in a single sentence what you want to say in the speech and how you want to say it, then the speech is probably not worth your time and effort.

Even a speech as short as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (a model of simplicity and clarity at just more than 250 words) has an introduction; a theme; and a clear beginning, middle, and end.

In the introduction, Lincoln puts the occasion in historical context and makes his link with the audience. By citing the Revolutionary War ("Four score and seven years ago . . . ."), he identifies a familiar and emotional event with which everyone can relate. He also invokes "our fathers," making us all part of the same family. This technique serves as a unifier.

The beginning of the Gettysburg Address tells us why we are here--"to dedicate a portion of that field"--and how we are being tested--"engaged in a great civil war." The middle places the present on the stage of history--"But in a larger sense"--and sheds the light of posterity on an event as simple as the dedication of a cemetery. The end challenges us to resolve that "these dead shall not have died in vain."

The theme of the speech is that conflict, war, and death--rather than tearing us apart--must bring us together and make us stronger and more united so that we may have "a new birth of freedom." In the midst of darkness, the speech courageously pries open the horrifying crypt of war itself and admits a bold crack of light. The message is at once simple, audacious, and incredibly hopeful.

Tell them, tell them, tell them

Not all messages, of course, will be as profound as the Gettysburg Address. But regardless of the nature of the event or the composition of the audience, the speaker owes it to his or her listeners to plan, write, and deliver the speech as if it were the Gettysburg Address.

An effective way to make the beginning, middle, and end of the speech work together is to remember this three-pronged rule of clear communication: Tell them you're going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them that you told them.

In the beginning of the speech, preview what is to come. This approach whets the audience's appetite and opens the door to the main body of the speech: the middle.

In the middle, present most of what you have to say. Simple, declarative lists ("First, I propose . . . .") can organize the middle of the speech to help the listener move along. In the end, wrap up ("To summarize . . . ."). Approaching the three parts of the speech this way is the simplest and easiest way to organize yourself and make your thoughts understandable to all.

Dynamic devices

Many other techniques can be employed to make a speech work especially well. All recognize one overwhelming fact: A speech is written for the ear. To be remembered, the words and ideas must engage the listener's imagination.

The following devices can be particularly effective in engaging the listener's imagination:

* Simile, metaphor, and descriptive imagery. These three devices are intimately related and can be used almost interchangeably to create verbal images and helpful comparisons for the listener. For example, instead of saying, "The search for the truth is difficult," you might say, "It's a little like trying to program a VCR."

* Storytelling--a great American tradition. Everyone likes to hear a story. We learn from an early age to listen to and enjoy stories. As we listen, we visualize the action of the story in our minds. This is why and how we remember stories long after we have forgotten a lot of other things.

When former Vietnam-era prisoner of war Gerald Coffee tells the story of the crude but effective communication method he and his fellow inmates devised in prison camp, he tells a story that stays with the audience forever.

In a speech, of course, a story has to be short (it cannot come to take the place of the speech itself) and it has to make a point in the context of the speech and its theme.

* Repetition. Besides helping your audience remember something, repetition builds greater awareness of central points or the main theme.

Often, repetition contributes to the cadence or flow of the speech. Like a reprise in a piece of music, repetition helps define the sound or style of the speech. The repetition of a single word or phrase can help build to the speech's climax. Remember Vice President Al Gore's repetition of the phrase "It's time for them to go" during the 1992 presidential campaign?

* Alliteration. This device serves many of the same functions as repetition. It must be used very carefully, however, because the wrong kind of alliteration can make a speech seem pretentious. Former Vice President Spiro Agnew's "nattering nabobs of negativism" comes to mind here.

Even a formal speech nowadays is largely conversational and straightforward. Alliteration is more baroque. Therefore, it must be used subtly, but it can still work very well.

* Quotes. For every quotation that you finally use in a speech, you should have discarded five or six others. Every good speech writer keeps a quote book handy. The best quotations are short and memorable. They not only say something meaningful, but they say it cleverly.

Good quotes work on several levels, forcing the audience to think. Make sure the quote is clearly attributed and that it was said by someone your audience will probably recognize. Quotations are often particularly effective at the beginning or end of a speech but can work well almost anywhere.

* Startling or surprising moments. In the Gettysburg Address, it was surprising when Lincoln declared that "we cannot dedicate--we cannot consecrate--we cannot hallow--this ground."

The president came to Gettysburg to dedicate the ground on which the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought. How could he say he could not do that? Obviously, Lincoln sought to surprise his listeners so as to draw their attention to the point he was about to make--that the field was already dedicated by those who fought there. Even in a short speech, surprising moments like that one reawaken the audience.

Use all of these devices sparingly in your speeches. If overused, the speech becomes exaggerated and can quickly turn into a farce. Used with care and to move the speech along, they usually work exceedingly well.

Common challenges

Unless you are being asked to deliver a major keynote address, which can run 50 minutes in length, keep in mind that you want to leave the audience exhilarated, not drained. In our fast-paced age, 20-25 minutes is about as long as anyone is going to listen to a speech. As you write and edit your speech, the general rule to follow is to allow about 90 seconds for every double-spaced page of copy.

Sometimes, however, it is not the length but the topic of the speech that will seem daunting. Perhaps you have been asked to speak on what you consider to be a dull topic. In this situation, view the speech as a challenge to find some interesting ways to present the information.

When President Ronald Reagan found it necessary to address the tedious process of adopting a federal budget, he brought the subject to life by dropping the weighty budget documents on top of one another, one by one, with heavier and heavier thumps. In that case, dull became dramatic.

Of course, if you feel you are the wrong person to speak on a certain topic, don't hesitate to say so. But be prepared to recommend someone else.

When you are preparing to give a speech, consider adopting the suggestions outlined in this article. People just may answer yes to the question "Heard any good speeches lately?"--once they've finished listening to your remarks.

Daniel A. Cirucci is director of communications for the 12,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association.

Delivering a Speech

Planning carefully, organizing your thoughts, and composing a good speech or presentation constitute only part of the process. You have to be able to deliver the speech well to carry it all off. Follow these 10 tips to achieve success.

1. Get comfortable with it. Read the speech silently a few times. In your mind, listen to yourself delivering the speech. Then read it aloud several times. Hear the sound and flow and cadence of it. Get to know the speech so that you can quickly recall its sounds and words like a familiar song.

2. Watch your timing. Know where the beginning, middle, and end of the speech click in. Identify the climax--the single most dramatic point in the address--which usually comes about two thirds of the way into the speech.

3. Mark it up. Give yourself notes and clues, if needed, along the margins or in the body of the speech, to tell you where to slow down, modulate, raise your voice, speed up, and so forth.

4. Don't get breathless. Speaking is not like reading--take your time. If you have to, err on the side of slow, clear pronunciation, but take care not to wind up sounding like a language instructor.

5. Deliver the speech just slightly above the conversational mode. Speak calmly and clearly in a manner that makes it seem like your well-organized mind is at its peak and is simply expounding with total, confident lucidity.

6. Maintain frequent eye contact with the entire audience. Look down, not to read the speech (you can't deliver the speech and read it word for word at the same time) but to remind yourself where you are.

7. Keep a glass of water at the podium. Anxiety can create an instant dry mouth. If necessary, steal a moment or two (when folks are laughing or applauding) to take a drink. Also, don't be afraid to take a moment to catch your breath. The audience will wait.

8. Don't think about the delivery of the speech as you are delivering it. Ignore that little voice inside you that wants to criticize the speech as you're speaking.

9. Delegate the responsibility for the sound system, lighting, the height of the podium, and so forth to technicians. As a precautionary measure, arrive early and try everything out.

10. Enjoy your speech--and share your enjoyment with the audience. You have prepared well and practiced. Now earn the accolades. Take time to smile and laugh. Savor the moment.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; preparing a good speech
Author:Cirucci, Daniel A.
Publication:Association Management
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:To thine own self be true.
Next Article:A business approach to budgeting.

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