Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Is that speech really a laundry list? A caution for communications pros

It's easy to forget now that TED talks have been around for so long, but one of the reasons for their success is that they stand in stark contrast to the type of speech you may be writing right now for your principal:: The laundry list.

Unlike TED talks, which focus on one big idea with just a few examples, the laundry list speech piles on a basket-full of programs, initiatives, product features, people to thank, or strategic goals. Instead of diving into one to three of those things, all of them must be hung on the line that is your speech.

That approach fails to give the ideas and content their due, and prevents the audience from hearing and comprehending any one thought in detail. So who is served by the laundry list speech? Typically,  not the audience. Instead, it's the company, organization, or the self-appointed committee members reviewing the content who require the piling-on of items. This turns a speech into a real-estate deal, in which various bits of laundry that need airing are attached to the same line. For many of these colleagues of yours, the speech is being treated as their only opportunity to speak, hence the piling-on. And I'll just say that speeches written, or edited, by a committee sound like it. Audiences aren't stupid.

It's not that every speech needs to be a TED talk--speeches have a wide variety of jobs to do. But you could do worse than insist on a single, core idea for your principal's next speech. That's true even--perhaps especially--for technical talks. Consider that PyCon, a technical conference for the Python programming language community, advises that talks should be "coherent," with this explanation:
Good talks are about one subject. A common bad talk proposal is a smorgasbord, a collection of half-a-dozen ideas, none of which were quite good enough to merit their own talk. Another bad proposal is the case study, where a high level discussion is had about lots of ways you tried to do things without success. 
The easiest way to judge coherence is to consider your talk as a story, with a narrative. Is there a beginning, middle, and end, with a theme that ties it all together? That's coherent.
If you're the speechwriter helping the speaker toward that one big idea, check the conference requirements. They may provide all the ammo you need to avoid the laundry list. If you're the speaker, try this approach and see how well it works. Your audience will not only thank you, it will be able to follow you.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Aldric van Gaver)

I've got a workshop on Creating a TED-quality Talk coming up in January 2016 in Washington, DC. It repeats twice in that month: on January 14, and again on January 28, and I'm limiting them to 5 seats per session.  All registration closes at the end of December or when all seats are filled, whichever comes first. Please join us, whether your goal is TED, TEDx, or just an elevated, current presentation style.

No comments: