Theo Eze joined us in April. He arrived with some excellent references, a strong CV, a sense of humour and this:
So you’ve spent the last four years on Regent Street rubbing elbows with dossers (sorry, English students). I suppose there’s nothing more I can teach you about writing then?
Possibly. But speech writing is a different matter. And I’d love to lend a hand. You never know, you might even benefit from some maternal pearls of wisdom.
I’ve been doing it for years. For the council. And I can promise you that all those big words and literary references you used in University essays can be shelved. Simplicity is everything.
Bar the older, sleepier councillors, I’ve kept whole rooms tuned-in for hour-long talks on school recycling. So maybe have a listen to your mother for once. Notice that? Short sentences are easy to deliver out loud. Complex, long sentences and bulky paragraphs aren’t. A speaker needs to breathe. To emphasise key words. To take their time.
It makes no difference whether you’re speaking to the intellectual elite, or a half-cut bunch of wedding guests. They all want to hear something that is clear and relevant. Nobody ever complained that the speech they heard was too easy to understand, too clear, or too well structured. So don’t try to write like a novelist. Be a speech writer. “Don’t write what you wouldn’t say.” is a good rule of thumb.
Your University tutor was paid to read your essays. He had a vested interest in sticking with them. A speech audience doesn’t. They are easily distracted. Their phones will be blinking. Their minds wandering. Whether it’s in a council meeting, a conference or a big dinner. Adults in a crowded room can be just as boisterous as children, and significantly more cynical. It is not their job to listen to you; it’s your job to grab their attention. Naturally you’re interested in all the brilliant things you have to say. They probably aren’t. Yet.
Keep it relevant. Keep it concise. Less words, less sub-clauses, less confusion. Hook them in and keep them interested. That’s a hell of a lot easier if they can follow every word. And don’t forget, once you’ve lost them, it’s almost impossible to win them back.
So imagine you’re speaking at a wedding. Champagne’s flowing. Nan loudly insists that she doesn’t need any fresh air. The kids buff the floor with their knees. How do you get that audience to hang on your every word?
The key is to keep it flowing. Don’t jump from topic to topic. Link them seamlessly. Use language to transport you between stories. Every time you say ‘And my next point’, another pair of eyes will close. Try not to provide the audience with excuses to exit.
A theme is a great tool for creating seamless links. It can tether your ideas to a single, memorable point. Compare the bridegroom to his favourite cartoon character. Or a new technological invention to the Spinning Jenny. Allow the theme to flood your subject with colour and to free your ideas. But never to stifle them.
Last but not least, have some fun. And that goes for a eulogy too. Make them laugh. If that’s too tough, make them smile. But don’t be too serious because you believe that’s what they want. Don’t let your speech become institutionalized
There are big differences between writing, and speech writing. They’ll reveal themselves in due course. Just put a piece of paper by your screen that says ‘clarity’ and ‘relevance’. That way, you can’t go far wrong.
And if it doesn’t work out? Well I’d say you can have your old room back. But your brother moved-in yesterday. There’s always the sofa bed.