The Speech Writing Revolution

by R. L. Howser on December 11, 2012 · 0 comments

In a recent post, Dumping Data, we looked at how a deluge of facts and figures, without a corresponding assertion of what the information means, can leave an audience feeling empty and confused, with no clue what they are supposed to take away from it.

In thinking about that post, and reading the comments that many of you added, I’ve realized that there is more to it than that. It’s not enough to just tell your audience what it all means, either. In fact, that can also work against you.

Call it critical thinking, pride or just plain contrarian stubbornness; when we push an audience to do, think, feel or believe something, their natural reaction is generally to push back. They will search for the errors in our data, the faults in our logic or the flaws in our argument.

To get around that resistance, rather than presenting our conclusions, our recommendations or our suggestions as if they’ve come down from the hand of God, we need to take the audience by the hand and lead them to our conclusions, step by step, so they can experience the epiphany of understanding on their own.

While I was pondering this, I happened to read a fascinating article in The Atlantic magazine. The Writing Revolution, by Peg Tyre, described the incredible success of a writing program at a notoriously bad high school on Staten Island.

Despite the complete failure of many earlier curriculum reform attempts, educators at New Dorp High School were able to achieve dramatic improvements in the writing abilities, and overall scholastic performance, of formerly underachieving students.

The breakthrough occurred when teachers realized that most of their students’ writing was lacking one specific feature; complex sentences. Students were writing a series of discrete thoughts or facts, but not linking the thoughts in a chain that indicated the relationships between them.

And that’s what many adults do when they dump data on the audience in a speech or presentation.

It’s the words between the facts, the conjunctions, which construct the overall meaning. A happened so B happened, even though C was done, therefore D will be necessary, if we want to achieve E. That’s what the facts mean.

And that’s the chain of events that the audience needs to experience through the presentation; not just that you and God (or the CEO) are recommending E. If they are going to buy into E, support E, explain E to their customers and defend it to their colleagues, they need to understand the entire sequence of facts and events, as if they had come up with the idea themselves.

Clear speaking comes from clear writing, and clear writing comes from clear thinking. When the students of New Dorp High School were taught to understand and use conjunctions they began to think and express themselves in more complex and sophisticated ways.

When speakers and presenters learn to use conjunctions to connect their facts, their thoughts and their conclusions; and to lead their audience by the hand through that thorny thicket, it allows them to inform, to persuade and to motivate through the shared experience of discovery.

Data dumps leave your audience confused. Commands and exhortations trigger resistance.  A shared journey brings them in as partners.

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