Tuesday, August 18, 2009

weekly writing coach: ?s for speakers

Putting words in someone else's mouth is tough. Might be your regular gig, or just a once-in-a-while task, but it's tough. Here are five questions to ask the speaker before you start to write, to save you time and to make the finished work sing:
  1. Are there any words or sounds I should avoid? I once wrote a long narrative script on theft in the Boston subway system for a radio announcer, full of purses, police and pickpockets--only to have her inform me that she pops her P's (sounds a bit like a cork coming out of a bottle), prompting a last-minute rewrite. Most speakers are familiar with their verbal stumbling blocks and impediments, and happy to have your help in avoiding them--so don't shy away from this question.
  2. Do you know the person you are introducing? A perfectly genial introduction can be written for anyone, but if your speaker's introducing someone she knows well, use the opportunity to ask two further questions: Do you want a written introduction? and What's something special you can tell me about him? Then -- if she does want some notes -- write an intro that's unique to your speaker and her relationship with the person she's introducing.
  3. What's a story you tell (or might tell) when you're talking about this subject? Instead of fabricating a story for your speaker, ask him this question to elicit a familiar story--then, instead of writing it down, put "Tell Paris story here" or some similar cue in the script. This will naturally cause the speaker to look at the audience, rather than the text, for a more impactful telling of the story.
  4. What's the effect you want to have on this audience? No writer can afford to guess the answer to this one. Asking this question may uncover organizational politics, hopeful aspirations or real anxiety about the outcome. Your speaker's take will help you guide the writing and avoid any inadvertent pitfalls due to the words you choose. And it'll help you set the right mood: somber, humorous, pointed, or questioning.
  5. What part of your message is likely to surprise the audience? Building up to a surprise is a classic way to add some drama to a speech, so make sure your speaker clues you in to enough context that you can do it effectivelly.
Speakers and speechwriters can find out more tips on public speaking at our sister blog, The Eloquent Woman.

Related posts: How to write a suite of introductions for others to introduce your speaker

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