Six speechwriting lessons from cartooning

Draw me a speech: Six speechwriting lessons from eight years of cartooning

Think of cartoons as storytelling, and you probably think of animation or graphic novels. (You won’t get much argument here: my kids and I spent months enraptured by Noelle Stevenson’s “Nimona,” and we’ve probably watched every episode of “Shaun the Sheep” a dozen times.)

But single-panel cartoons are stories, too: just really distilled ones. And drawing them for eight years has taught me a ton about storytelling — which in turn has taught me a lot about speechwriting, helping me connect with audiences whenever I put down the stylus and put on my communicator’s hat.

Here are six of the key lessons I’ve learned along the way, and the cartoons that helped to teach me: Continue reading

How CNBC did the GOP a solid (and why leaders should embrace gotcha questions)

Harsh, even unfair questions can tell you how you’ll do under much more intense fire.

The long-standing Republican hostility toward the news media was on full display last week after the CNBC GOP presidential debate. And it led them to fall into a trap that tempts many speakers: settling for easy wins instead of preparing for difficult questions.

On Friday the party, citing outrage that its candidates were asked difficult questions, suspended its relationship with NBC, putting the next debate in limbo. And there’s no question that some of the questions were juvenile, and framed to generate heat rather than shed light.

But what angry Republicans don’t seem to realize is that they were given a huge gift by CNBC on Wednesday night. It may not have been the gift they wanted, but it’s one they needed — and it came at a surprisingly low price.

The debate’s moderators provided a taste of the kind of scrutiny the Republican nominee will face during the presidential campaign itself. Whoever that is will have to face tough questions from their Democrat opponent and (I live in hope) the media. Those questions are essential if voters are to make an informed choice among competing candidates, platforms and visions.

Cruel (or at least harsh) to be kind

It isn’t rude, or even unkind, to direct a little harshness toward a candidate in a debate, if you want to know how that candidate will fare under much more intense fire. But apparently what Republicans wanted from the debate was a series of easy questions that would allow each candidate to showcase their skills at rhetorical slow-pitch ball.

And the problem for Republicans is this: whoever emerges victorious from that kind of contest probably isn’t going to go very far in the major leagues.

Yes, CNBC moderators asked some difficult questions, and not all of them were geared to garnering wisdom rather than audience share and reaction GIFs. Welcome to 21st-century media.

But they did it virtually cost-free. When candidates ducked some questions and lied outright in response to others, the moderators exacted precisely zero price for it. They even apologized when challenged on non-existent factual errors.

In short, the leading lights of the GOP field got a dress rehearsal for their 2016 high-flying act, complete with a nice, big safety net. They — and their supporters — should have seen it for the rare and precious opportunity it was.

Prepare with a worthy adversary

The Republican Party of 2015 is probably far too vested in their antipathy to the non-Fox news media to see that. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t learn from their mistake. For leaders who plan to communicate around contentious issues in the rough and tumble of the public spotlight, and for those helping them to craft their messages, here’s the critical lesson.

When you prepare, whether it’s for an audience Q&A, a media interview or a debate, choose mock opponents who won’t hesitate to bring the tough questions and raise the awkward points you’d rather avoid. If that means bringing in outsiders, great.

Welcome the opportunity to rehearse opposite a worthy adversary… even (especially) if they’re willing to be unfair, obnoxious and confrontational. They’re doing you a favour — even if that’s hard to see in the heat of the moment.

Photo by Flickr user Ben Watts

Photo of an auditorium, with a seat labeled Reserved For You

Being there: Why a seat in the audience can make you a better speechwriter

Sometimes, there’s just no fighting geography. And the truth is, there’s no faster or better feedback on how a speech you wrote goes over than to be in the audience when it does.

That’s often hard, especially if the speech is in another city, or if your speechwriting is a freelance gig outside of your day job. But if you can show up, even if it’s only to a handful of speeches, you’ll have a far better handle on the chemistry between your text, your speaker and their audience. Continue reading

"Nice speech. Did you write it?"

"Great speech! Did you write it?" How to answer the QUESTION OF DOOM

Being in the audience when a speaker delivers a speech you’ve written is great, for all kinds of reasons. But it does hold one big danger: being asked, “Did you write it?”

See if you can spot where this conversation at a banquet table after a luncheon keynote went south:

“So what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a speechwriter.”

“Oh! Did you write this speech?”

“This? This speech? The one you just heard? Ha, ha, excellent question. My gosh, my throat’s dry. I’m just going to get some water, and then sit down at a different table on the far side of the room.”

We love to get credit for the work we’ve done. (Maybe not when a speech bombs. Success has a hundred proud parents, but failure is an orphan.) But when we’re writing for someone else, claiming authorship is complicated at best, and fraught with moral and financial peril at worst. Continue reading

You risk swapping being a storyteller for being a stock ticker.

Putting the ‘numb’ in ‘numbers’: Don’t let statistics sap your speech’s emotional punch

I recently saw a speech by someone clearly accustomed to the public spotlight and comfortable on the stage. She had an important message to deliver about a profound social injustice. She spoke with authority and confidence.

And she spent nearly all twenty minutes of her speech reciting statistics.

Good, compelling statistics: stark, often startling, sometimes infuriating. But two hours after her speech, I’d have been hard-pressed to tell you any of them.

Now, there was an interview-style Q&A after the speech where she was a lot more engaging. But by that point, she’d already lost a big chunk of the audience.

When it comes to statistics in speeches, less really is more. One or two telling statistics to buttress an argument or illustrate a point can be powerful. Once your trickle of stats swells to a flood, though, your audience can easily get overwhelmed and emotionally detached. And you risk swapping being a storyteller for being a stock ticker. Continue reading

I believe crash reports should be worth reading (14)

Everything froze for a moment as the full realization struck Commander Akal: the altimeter had been sabotaged. She didn't have five hundred metres of room to play with; she had perhaps one hundred and twenty, and that number — like the landing craft — was plunging.
	'Shnat!' she hissed, smacking the actuator to fire the braking thrusters. The craft lurched upward, slamming her body into her seat. Searing pain ripped up her spine, and she knew immediately one of her tails had fractured. Better that than the rest of her.
	The green copper-oxide surface of Mardath rushed to fill her screen, and she punched the emergency thrusters. Two of the them fired; the third sputtered, flared and burst in a shower of metal splinters.
	The craft yawed left, and the horizon twisted sickeningly.
	'I'm about to be the first Tragg on Mardath,' Akal had a split second to think, and then the craft's hull crushed and folded into her in less time than it took to blink, flattened. It skidded, tumbled, skipped and skidded again, carving a staccato groove in the Mardathian surface.
	The dust took hours to settle in Mardath's thin gravity. But when it did, all was silent and still.

Everything froze for a moment as the full realization struck Commander Akal: the altimeter had been sabotaged. She didn’t have five hundred metres of room to play with; she had perhaps one hundred and twenty, and that number — like the landing craft — was plunging.

“Shnat!” she hissed, smacking the actuator to fire the braking thrusters. The craft lurched upward, slamming her body into her seat. Searing pain ripped up her spine, and she knew immediately one of her tails had fractured. Better that than the rest of her.

The green copper-oxide surface of Mardath rushed to fill her screen, and she punched the emergency thrusters. Two of the them fired; the third sputtered, flared and burst in a shower of metal splinters.

The craft yawed left, and the horizon twisted sickeningly.

“I’m about to be the first Tragg on Mardath,” Akal had a split second to think, and then the craft’s hull crushed and folded into her in less time than it took to blink, flattened. It skidded, tumbled, skipped and skidded again, carving a staccato groove in the Mardathian surface.

The dust took hours to settle in Mardath’s thin gravity. But when it did, all was silent and still.

This one’s for Red Sweater Software and the excellent MarsEdit.