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Speeches and Presenting – Tips and Techniques

Posted July 14th, 2009

This article from Denise Winterman from the BBC caught our eye recently, and we thought we’d share it with you…

A brilliant speech can go down in history. But most of us write words the world will never listen to. Can speech-writing teach us skills for dealing with tricky situations in everyday life?

Pants. Just one of the reasons the US Embassy in Britain is currently advertising for a speech-writer. It says knowledge of the nuances between the Queen’s English and American English is vital, for obvious reasons.

However speech-writing is about much more than trying to avoid red faces. As far back as the ancient Greeks, the power of carefully crafted words has been fully understood and expertly exploited.

But rather than being all about creative flair a good speech-writer uses a number of techniques to get a point across. And these verbal tools are not only useful at the lectern, anyone can use them in everyday situations, from handling a boisterous child to reasoning with a traffic warden.
This is because speech-writing is the language of persuasion. And the average day largely consists of trying to persuade people, says Dr Max Atkinson, a communications consultant and author of Speech-Making and Presentation Made Easy.

“The way words are put together makes all the difference,” he says. “It’s often thought that great speakers are blessed with a gift, but they all use the same techniques. What makes people stand out is how often they use them.

“These techniques are the building blocks of effective speech-writing and can be used in other areas of life. Some people use them without even knowing. They are usually the best speakers and the most persuasive people, but anyone can learn them.”

Mantra

Study great speeches and you will soon see a formula, agrees Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London. While some are more complex, others are relatively simple.

What makes the techniques adaptable to everyday life is the fact that language is governed by rules – rules we all learn from the time we begin to peak.

“Even the smallest child is learning the rules of language, and language acquisition and so these techniques can be applied to them,” says Dr Atkinson.

“Research has shown that you can get a different reaction from a child depending on how you speak to them. Like everyone else, they respond to the way something is said.”

In a nutshell, a great speech is communication at its most effective, and we all want to communicate effectively in whatever situation we find ourselves in, says professional speech-writer Lawrence Bernstein.

“The rules and techniques of good communication work on all levels – if you’re on a stage speaking to thousands of people, asking your boss for a pay rise, trying to buy a new house, or teaching a class of 10 year olds.”

So what are the best techniques?

CONTRASTS

A tactic used by John F Kennedy and by Margaret Thatcher.

People are still quoting JFK’s line: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And Baroness Thatcher was at her most formidable when she famously told the 1980 Tory party conference: “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning.”

“Using contrasts is a real winner,” says Dr Atkinson. “Research shows 33% of the applause a good speech gets is when a contrast is used.

“This is because you are often using a negative and then a positive and that has impact. It makes your point bigger and better.”

It’s a technique that translates into everyday life, especially with children. While explaining they can’t have one thing, it’s good to point out what they can have instead. “No, you can’t have a skateboard of your own, but you can have a go on your brother’s.”

THREE-PART LISTS

Three really is the magic number. “Education, education, education” – Tony Blair’s 1997 election-winning mantra. Or it can be a list as simple as “here, there and everywhere”.

It’s a technique used by US President Barack Obama – he used 29 three-part lists in roughly 10 minutes during his victory speech on election night, says Dr Atkinson.

The theory behind the technique is that three is the first and earliest point at which a possible list of similar words can become unequivocal. No other word needs to be added to make it a list.

“It’s about completeness. A third word can give confirmation and completes a point,” says Dr Atkinson. “It applies in all walks of life. Church services and prayer books are full of three-part lists. Research has shown that people know a prayer is finished when it ends with them praying for three things. They know to say ‘Amen’ and don’t have to be prompted.”

Also, it is economical – a third word is the earliest point at which a possible connection, implied by the first two, is confirmed. If you carry on listing items, say speech-writing experts, you risk being criticised for “going on and on”. It can be the same in life in general.

IMAGERY AND ANECDOTES

Be it “opening doors” or “breaking down barriers”, paint a carefully constructed picture with your words.

“It’s about taking people on a journey and making it memorable,” says Prof Furnham. “Imagery and anecdotes are some of the best ways to do this and they can personalise things.”
Again, it’s President Obama who experts say is a master of this technique.

“He knows how to use imagery both to increase impact and to make his points. He paints an image but also evokes associations with great communicators of the past like Lincoln and King,” says Dr Atkinson.

This technique works whether addressing a nation, or guests at a wedding, say experts.

BREAK THE RULES

A good speech-writer knows the rules to follow, and also how to break these to maximum effect. There is always room for the unexpected in a great speech, and in life, says Phil Collins, former speech-writer for Tony Blair.

If done well it can grab people’s attention – and he should know. Mr Collins penned Mr Blair’s joke about there being no danger of his wife “running off with the bloke next door”.

It was one of the former prime minister’s most unexpected and memorable lines, delivered in his last speech to a Labour conference in 2006. It was deftly done and showed a real understanding of Blair and Gordon Brown’s prickly relationship.

“No one was expecting it, which is what made it so good and so memorable,” he says. “Pitched right and delivered well, something unexpected will make people sit up and listen.”

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