Five Lifesavers for Speech Writing

Scripting is one way an aspiring writer can try his hand at live stage. Unlike copywriting , creative writing, or journalism, here the writer gets to act. Speech writing usually means you’re writing for someone else, and this is sometimes the hardest thing to remember. It’s not your voice speaking; it’s theirs. So it shouldn’t sound like you, it should sound like them.  What does that mean for word choice?

  1. Lose your own favorite phrases and drop your trademark style. If possible, listen to past tapes of the speaker. Practice their mannerisms, their timing, be aware of when they pause for audience reaction.  Take a tip from celebrity impersonators.  Often it’s not how much they match the celebrity in physical appearance that is convincing, but rather, the inflections, expressions, attire, and stance they take that conjures up the likeness.

  2. Know what bugs the speaker. I once scripted the dynamic CEO of a major nonprofit. She could capture the audience in a manner of minutes, so I came out of the gate galloping. No subdued, “Welcome to our event.” It was more like “Good morning everyone.  How the heck are you today? I better hear you’re happy because we don’t want any down-in-the-mouthers in this room.” The audience became immediately engaged. This same person didn’t like the phrase “Because of” as in “Because of your great work, we are presenting…” so I went out of my way to say, “Thanks to your great work,” or “Due to your great work,” or “Without you’re great work we couldn’t have achieved…”

  3. Know the audience. If you’re talking to an automotive crowd, use a few phrases that relate:  “drive results,”  “accelerate sales,”  “rev up for the Fourth Quarter.”  If your audience is assembled from the medical field, opt for “robust performance,” “healthy attendance,” and “corporate well-being.” Talking to the financial crowd? You’ll probably want “return on investment,” “assets,” and “bottom line.”  But don’t overdo it; make it subtle and sprinkle the phrases far and wide.

  4. Give the speaker some help;  don’t trip them up. If there’s a name, location, or technical term, spell it out phonetically.  “Liam Donaghue” should be written out but next to it, put (PRON: shawn donna-hue).  “La Jolla” might be cued as (PRON: La Hoy-a).  [“PRON” stands for “Pronounced.”]  If the speaker has a lisp, avoid phrases that accentuate it. Rather than “Let’s look at this more closely” turn it into, “Now is a great time to look at the case at hand.” Keep the words sharp, not soft. If scripting for audio, remember that even the best narrator can mess up “What makes New York unique?” or “For those of you who are frequent readers…”  Forfeit the word (and your ego) and go with, “What makes New York special?” or “For those of you who read a lot…” That way, everyone wins.

  5. Keep it short. Overestimate the time it takes to pronounce the words. A phone number, for example, while appearing short on the page actually takes a while to articulate:  “one eight hundred, two three four, five six seven eight.”  Get a clock or watch with a second hand and use it to read radio, TV, or telemarketing scripts out loud. You’ll quickly learn to count syllables and know when to change “caterpillar” to “bug.”

Guard Against Greenwashing

Environmental activism is upon us, and it’s politically correct to be green. Just about every politician has a green speech, almost every utility company promotes their resource conservation, and many outspoken students have jumped on the bandwagon to green up the world.

Last summer I went to the D2E (Down to Earth) expo in Boston. I hadn’t been much a green-goer, but I was looking for ways to promote a series of webisodes at The thinking was that the more people who viewed these video vignettes, the stronger the case for future funding.

I must admit, I was surprised that this green event was extremely mainstream. Aside from some rainforest cures, it really was “down to earth.” There were a lot of construction companies, architects, and community organizations wanting to make a statement – and drum up business. That meant, someone had to write the words for their brochures, signage, and websites.

If I hear the term “carbon footprint” one more time, I will scream — but fact is, the green movement has spawned a hatch of new lingo and writers need to brush up. We now talk about “emission control,” “environmental impact,” and “global warming.” We differentiate between “sustainable” and “renewable.” We allude to “hydro power,” “wind farms,” and “solar energy.” We drop phrases like “post-consumer material,” “biofuels” and “environmental mitigation.” Actually, I’ve found the Environmental Paper Network to be an excellent source for terminology.

But the conscientious writer must guard against turning every assignment into a soapbox. Fact is, some clients simply are not green. Smoke stacks still belch out pollutants, synthetics can out-gas toxins, and even the most bucolic landscape can conceal a hazardous coal ash dump. So when asked to tout the environmental responsibility of a paying client, do some homework first. It’s easy to gush and maybe even spin the information to be greener than it really is. There’s actually a word for this: greenwashing.

According to Wikipedia, “greenwashing“ was coined by New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay regarding the hotel industry’s practice of placing placards in each room. These cards advocated reuse of towels in order to help save the environment. The motivation was transparent: reduce laundry costs, and the attempt backfired.

So what’s a writer to do? If the project is green and good, go for it! Talk whales and polar bears and future generations. But if the project is suspect, a responsible writer might have to say “no.” Ethics aside, the truth will “out” on today’s social landscape where bloggers and consumer communities will be all over it as soon as you hit “Send.”

But this quandary is a great reminder: words have power and power has implications. Wield your words wisely.

Fundraising can inspire creative writing

Whatever you write must pass the litmus test – that is, it must cause an emotional reaction. A shudder. A lump in the throat. A memory of someone familiar. This is “disruptive advertising” at its best.

‘Tis the season to be charitable – and a time when non-profit writing swings into full gear. Whether you’re crafting words for a company campaign or soliciting donations for a religious organization, writing to raise funds can be tricky. Topics tend to be grim (poverty, cruelty, need) and the ask is blunt: send money.

The fundraising writer walks a thin line between sappy and sincere. Too cloying and sentimental, and you risk turning the prospect away. Too abrupt and logical, and the prospect doesn’t engage. One tip that works well is to create an individual appeal rather than tackle the problem at large. This is the basis for the New York Times’ “Ten Neediest Cases.” Better than asking for money to “feed the children,” it’s more compelling to say, “Mary is a quiet child with imploring eyes and pale skin. She’s small for her age because she rarely has enough to eat. This winter will be even more difficult because her parents will have to choose between food and fuel. When asked what she wants for Christmas, Mary says, ‘Lunch, a pair of mittens, and a doll for my sister.’ That’s really not asking for much, is it?”

So what has happened here? You can “see” Mary and “feel” her pain. By establishing humble qualities, you position her against others who may appear greedy and less deserving. By itemizing specific needs, you address various giving options: food, clothing, the joys of childhood. An understatement at the end goes for the gut without spelling it out.

Whatever you write must pass the litmus test – that is, it must cause an emotional reaction. A shudder. A lump in the throat. A memory of someone familiar. This is “disruptive advertising” at its best. The content is intended to make prospects uncomfortable but not so much that they can’t take action. You must always allow the prospect to be a hero.

This particular description lends itself to a memorable campaign name: “Mittens for Mary” — but it could just as easily be “A Wheelchair for William.”  Whatever you write should be transparent:  name the recipient organization, provide their charitable status (tax-exempt, 501(c)3 etc), describe how the funds will be distributed and used. Case in point:

A man was collecting donations at my local market. He belonged to reputable civic group, designated by his apron. He said he was raising funds for “children with disabilities,” but when asked about the recipient organization, he said it was “private.” So how did children receive these funds? “People apply.” Who decides which children benefit? He didn’t say.  How do people learn about the available funding?  No clarity on that either. I put a few coins into his bucket, but didn’t like it.

Lesson learned: the donor should feel good about giving, and demonstrating strong governance is a way to do that. A better approach would have been to provide documentation about the recipient group, facts about the number of children served, types of disabilities addressed, a list of board members, medical affiliations, credentials from Guidestar or the BBB stating % of overhead vs disbursement. Icing on the  cake would be photos of smiling children receiving help. Even better — a caption like: “Bobby says ‘Bless You.’”

As with any direct response campaign, the call to action must be easy: mail, phone, online or in person. A heartfelt thank you and a receipt for tax purposes should seal the deal. Not fancy writing there but good form. And don’t forget to capture the donor information for the database.

A Note About Press Releases

One piece of good advice imparted by someone who was a master at “manipulating the media,” is “What before whom”—in other words, tell the story that interests an editor before patting yourself on the back.

Interestingly, there are others who feel a 27-word headline is best – more information to “hook them in.” However, busy editor friends say they wouldn’t get past the first 5 words.

Search engine marketers will advise that you load your heading and first graph (paragraph) with key words to drive SEO, but not at the cost of awkwardness.
So which thinking do you follow?  Some will be driven by your company or client. If they are focused on “news,” they’ll keep it short and sweet, using words like “new”,”first,” or “free.” If they are more interested in archiving material for ongoing web presence, they are more apt to like lengthy explanations and history.

Regardless of style, the one thing to keep in mind is that your press release has to grab the attention of media. You’re not talking to the customer. That means the subject must be newsworthy. Just because your company or client added a doo-dad to their product doesn’t mean that the earth will stop spinning. It has to be relevant.

There’s an old adage in the newspaper business that comes to mind: “Dog bites man – not news; man bites dog – that’s news.”

Keep this in mind the next time you’re writing a press release. Find a hook, support it with fact, and serve it up in a way that is palatable to a busy editor. Often a seasonal angle, local hot button, or related headline can help. Most importantly, make it easy for that editor to do his or her job: provide links and data. Offer a high quality image but don’t jam the recipient’s e-mail box; send a thumbnail instead. Do the legwork to save them time. Offer to facilitate supporting comments. And don’t “cry wolf,” when you don’t have news. Save your favors for when it counts.

The Conundrum of Resume Writing

There seems to be only one consistency in resume writing: advice runs 360-degrees. Once a recruiter instructed me to remove the objective and insert a summary. Another told me to remove the summary and include an objective. I landed my most recent job by using both – because it seemed logical.

Today there are two schools of thought about SEO (search engine optimization). One school suggests loading the lead with keywords like “writing,” “communication,” and “public relations” if you’re in the media field. The idea is to provide a laundry list of terms that search engines will see. Another cautions against making content sound stilted and instead suggests sprinkling keywords throughout.

Does typeface matter? Yes, according to those in creative fields – don’t use anything mundane. One creative director instructs, “Never use Times Roman. It’s too common.” On the other hand, those in traditional fields (finance, education, manufacturing) often prefer Times Roman because it doesn’t detract from the content. Serif or not? Web folks, accustomed to Sans Serif type, tend to like Arial or Verdana. However, the standard rule of thumb is that Serif is easier to read. For resumes that simply get scanned into a database, it probably doesn’t matter.

Is a cover letter really necessary? “It’s so redundant,” my job-hunting friends complain. Yet according to a CEO I know, he purposely requests a cover letter to see how candidates present themselves, how well they write, and if they can follow instructions. A cover letter also imparts a level of enthusiasm and/or expertise often lost in the resume format. Chances are, a bland cover letter – “I am responding to your ad on ” –is not going to grab the attention of the hiring manager as much as something like, “I learned three things when I began working in XTZ field.”

Whatever approach you take in resume writing, remember that Spell Check is your best friend.