Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Write Speeches that are Music To Their Ears

This week's Friday Fundamentals post tunes in to the sounds and rhythms of music to offer a cool tip for writing voice communications.

Let me start with a story:

The woman was an accomplished professional.  Slim, blonde and youthful, she projected a charming presence.  She had boundless drive and an amazing track record for accomplishing the impossible.  She was driven by her passion for the non-profit organization that she had founded and now headed.  I'd seen her manage difficult people and crisis situations with strength and serenity.

But that day, she approached me with fear in her eyes.  Alarmed, I asked her what was wrong. She came nearer, desperation tinging her voice as she lowered it to just above a whisper.

"I have to make a speech to the Kiwanis club," she confided.

Among  all the varied types of communication, I've noticed that speeches and verbal presentations top the terror list.  That's a bit surprising, isn't it?  We each speak thousands of words daily.  In a casual conversation, we have no problem telling our spouse, our sister, or our sales manager what's on our mind.  But shove a mike in front of us, and we freeze up.

I've often had the opportunity to write speeches, presentations and voice-over soundtracks for media programs.  It may seem strange, but I've found that my background as a songwriter has helped me in this area more than any formal training I've had. I've discovered that the same tricks a musician uses to compose a ballad can be used to write presentations that rivet audiences and move them emotionally.

But maybe that's not so strange a thing after all.   A good song is, after all, a message well delivered. Its lyrics tell a story.  Its  rhythm gives it punch.  Its instrumentation and pacing are its framework.  Its melody sweeps us into an emotional current that we find irresistible.  As communications devices, hit songs do a lot of things right.  So why not borrow some of their magic when you sit down to write your next speech or presentation?

That's what I did to help my friend face down her Kiwanis club fears.  I took her already well-articulated thoughts and sorted them into memorable sound bites, using the tricks below.  She was awesome -- and you will be, too, when you bring a Tin Pan Alley approach to your talking points.

1.  Think musically about your speech's desired emotional impact.  What's the feeling you're trying to elicit from your audience?  What style of music fits that picture?  Would it be:

  • A sweeping, patriotic anthem?
  • A carefree Top 40's hit?  
  • A woeful song about lost love?  
  • A thumping rock-and-roll manifesto?  
  • A playful Broadway tune?
Figure out which type of song best expresses the basic "feel" that you want your speech to have.

2.  Adopt a song for inspiration.  After you've done step 1 above, think of an example of a song that fits that profile.  Then use it to help you build the structure of your speech. For example, if you're trying to rouse your audience's feelings of sympathy, like my Kiwanis speaker, you might choose a ballad about lost love.  In that case, you might start your speech with a story illustration, like the hit Barbra Streisand hit, Since I Fell For You:
"You made me leave my happy home
You took my love and now you're gone..."
Those words paint an immediate picture of need and loss, pulling in the listeners and focusing them on a dramatic moment.  So my Kiwanis speaker started her speech with a short story of a woman reaching a crisis point in her life.

On the other hand, maybe you're reporting the results of your team's successful marketing campaign.  It got off to a rocky start -- a fact which has not escaped the attention of the top execs -- but your guys pulled off a big win in the end.  In such a situation, you might choose to pattern your remarks after the opening lyrics of the Queen rock classic, We Are The Champions.  In fact, you could simply substitute "we" for "I" and come up with a pretty great lead-in:
"(We've) paid (our) dues - Time after time - (We've) done (our) sentence But committed no crime - And bad mistakes (We've) made a few (We've) had (our) share of sand kicked in (our) face - But (we've) come through ... We are the champions - my friends!"
Well, you might not use those exact words, but you get the drift.  Start your introduction with a bold recap. Make it frank, and make no excuses.  Then, listen to the wailing lead guitars in your head as you reveal the awesome sales numbers on the payoff PowerPoint slide. Your audience will be ready. Who wouldn't feel a stadium-size surge of victory after hearing a build-up like that?

  3.  Outline the rest of your speech, songwriter-style.  With a musical theme and a specific song as inspiration, you can proceed to flesh out your ideas.  Thinking of your presentation as a song will help you keep yourself on track and prevent going off on tangents.  You're not writing a whole Broadway musical here.  Focus on the main idea, and organize your thoughts in a listener-friendly way. Songwriters use three key structural elements to keep their listeners engaged.  You can use them, too, as you continue to put together words that will captivate your hearers:

a.  Chorus - Most songs have a declaration statement that they return to again and again. It frames their main idea.  It's an effective device -- think of any pop hit and your thoughts will zoom right to the words of its chorus.  In fact, most song titles are merely their chorus' memorable first line:  You Can't Hurry Love.  Under The Boardwalk.  All You Need Is Love.

What's your chorus?  What's the main message that you want your audience to absorb?  Hit that message early on, and go back to it throughout your speech.

In my Kiwanis speaker's example, her theme was that a caring community can work together to transform the lives of people in need.  She gave several examples of this principle throughout her speech, and after each one, she returned to this thought as her "chorus" core message.

b.  Hook -- This is the part of a song that you remember.  Whether it's a distinct drum rhythm, a soaring synthesizer lick, or a perpetual background vocal, the hook becomes the song's signature.  (Think about the incessant, breathy micro-lyric, "celebrate," that's sung throughout Madonna's hit song Holiday.  Actually, many people think that song's title is Celebrate.  I wonder why?)

Your presentation needs a signature line, too.  Find a key phrase that you can make your own.  Then find a way to work it into your speech as a recurring theme.

My Kiwanis speaker spoke of "invisible women" -- the single moms among us who look "normal" but are nonetheless at the point of losing their homes and children due to economic adversity.  By the end of her speech, she had mentioned that two-word phrase, "invisible women," at least six times.  Her Kiwanis club members came away with a tag phrase that they would forever associate with her message, and her cause.

c.  B section -- This is a part of the song that diverts from the steady flow to make a fresh-sounding statement that supports the whole idea.  In a Broadway musical, the B section often comes in the middle of the number, with a change in volume or orchestration to make it stand out. This is when a main character might come to the front of the stage and sing his own solo, conveying how he feels about the action or reminding the audience about a key plot point.  The B section of a song always reinforces its main theme, but it does so from a different perspective, taking the audience a bit by surprise and engaging them in a new way.

Think about how your speech can have a B section, too.  Some ideas: an interview with a guest speaker, a live demonstration, an amusing anecdote or joke, an appropriate visual image (such as a map, a photo or a cartoon), a movie clip or YouTube video, or -- why not? -- a song clip with a relevant lyric.   A warning here: don't use something just because you have it handy.  It has to contribute energy and depth to your message.  That's what a good B section is all about.

My Kiwanis speaker had a video clip with testimonials that she rolled in midway through her speech.  It was a powerful addition.  It kept the club members awake, and spurred their imaginations.  It brought the main point home in a way that mere spoken words never could have done.

Finally, when you write for audio delivery, keep it simple.  Always pay attention to the principle in last week's Friday Fundamentals post, Short Sentences Beget Longer Attention Spans.  Remember that short sentence length is the rule when it comes to speeches.  Like catchy song lyrics, the best speech sound bites are sturdy, small chunks of words that paint strong pictures in your audience's minds.

When we approach speech writing, let's replace terror with a tune.   Let's loosen up and have a little fun with our craft.  We can do this, guys.  Cue the music:  "We are the champions, we are the champions, no time for losers, 'cause we are the champions -- of the world!"

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