If you want to be a better public speaker, start by listening.
Effective speech writing is all about knowing who you are talking to, and giving them what they want – or need – to hear.
It’s a hard lesson for me to learn – especially when there’s a police officer in plain clothes staring you down.
One day, somewhere back in mid-2002, I was asked to speak at a lunchtime Rotary club meeting about journalism and the news business. Easy enough, I thought. At that point, I just received my 20-year pin serving the trenches at the Cambridge Reporter newspaper. I was the newly appointed editor and feeling pretty good about myself.
Great stories are good, but
With all those years a reporter, photographer and editor, I knew I had great stories.
I cobbled together a speech about how I approached the news business, how I made a living asking questions. How I found stories. How I shaped those stories for my audience. And, of course, What was the weirdest thing I ever wrote about?
(It was a guy who brought a potato into the newsroom one day, looking for a story. The spud looked exactly like former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s face and head. Seriously. Photo and story for the front page, please).
Anyway, my speech went well enough. I told few more stories while neglecting to delve deeply into why one story gets published and another doesn’t.
I had my speech all written down – and kept reading from it behind the podium. No point-form notes to I could keep my eyes on the audience. I droned on for 10 minutes. I didn’t vary down my tempo and use inflection to emphasize important points.
I didn’t think through who was in the audience. Who might put their hand up in the question and answer session?
I broke a basic rule of journalism: be prepared.
Rotarians? What could go wrong? All I had to do was call the organizer and ask who the club members are. Or more accurately, remind me who was likely to be in the audience. I knew most of them from writing stories about what they’ve done in town over the years.
Local business leaders who have learned how to ask good questions, because their livelihood depends on good information. The crowd gathered in the Galt Country Club meeting room was also salted with other community leaders, people who also knew how to ask good questions. After all, nobody builds credibility for their personal brand by talking all the time.
None of that was in my mind as set myself up as the target in the question-and-answer session. I started to recognize the faces as they asked me about stories I had covered, softball questions about why the media does what it does and why I like my job. (Answer: I love asking questions).
Then she stood up and greeted me politely. I wished I remembered she was a one-time homicide investigator and was now commander of the local police detachment. Super friendly. With a detective’s mindset. I didn’t see it coming.
“I’ve heard there’s a Code of Ethics for Journalists – so why didn’t you talk about that in your speech. What do you say to people who don’t think journalists have any ethics?”
Answer obvious questions
I wasn’t ready for an obvious question. I stammered and wobbled at the podium, before making a half-hearted explanation. It was ugly.
I wasn’t ready with a story to tell a personal story around the never-ending public discourse of ethics in journalism. Something everyone seems to have an opinion on. Something that’s been simmering for centuries, long before people started accusing the media of creating “Fake News.”
I learned. Always remember: audience first is the smart way to approach speech writing.
Listen to what they say — and imagine what they are likely to ask.
Adapted from a speech presented at Cambridge Toastmasters Dec. 13, 2018.
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