Archive for the ‘FAQs’ Category

FAQ: How Important is Practice?

toastmastersThe short answer is “very.”

Speaking in front of a live audience is a skill. Some people are born with a goodly amount of that skill. Most people…not so much.

The good news is that everyone can improve. Start by learning the best practices in speech writing and presentation. Then be sure to make those methods your own by rehearsing your talk again and again. That’s why, whenever I give a presentation or workshop on writing better speeches, I always include a strong recommendation for Toastmasters. They have chapters everywhere, and they provide wonderful opportunities not only to practice the craft, but to get supportive feedback.

FAQ: How should I use quotations?


Quotations can add a lot to a speech, talk or presentation, if used judiciously. By that I mean two things: make sure your quotes suit the subject matter of and audience for the speech. And, above all make sure each quote is accurate.

There are thousands of great quotes out there, most of them very easy to find with a good search engine. Resist the temptation, however, to overuse quotes. Using too many can distract from your own words, or –even worse– make your audience think you’re trying too hard to impress them. At the same time, keep in mind that not every quote works with every audience and occasion. For example, you don’t want to use a humorous quote at a solemn occasion. At the same you do want to use a quote from a prominent person whom your audience will instantly recognize or even identify with.  For a speech to an audience of Italian Americans, for example, I searched for (no surprise) quotes from prominent Italian American actors, scientists, etc.

Also remember that quotes found on the internet are like a lot of the “information” on the Web: many of them are false. Double or triple check the source and accuracy of every quotation you use. Many are literally too good to be true. And you don’t want to expose yourself or your client to getting caught using a bad quote. It happens to the best of us, including me. I was writing for the Archivist of the U.S.  (head of the National Archives) and I put in this wonderful quote from one of the Founding Fathers on the importance of information in a democracy. The Archivist spoke to many scholarly groups, and –sure enough–one audience member pointed out that the Founding Father in question never said the quote. Luckily for me the Archivist is a tolerant man.

To double check quotes Wikiquote is a great place to begin. The site  includes the source of a quote, and even lists quotes that are often wrongly attributed to a particular speaker. The websites of libraries and museums can be good sources, too.

FAQ: What’s the Difference between a Speech, a Talk, and a Presentation?

FAQMy guess is, if you talked to five experts, you’d get five different answers to that question. Why? Mainly because the distinctions between one kind of speaking event and another are pretty fuzzy.  For example, did you know that Bill Clinton did not give a speech to the Democratic National Convention? Nope. It was a “talk.”

According to former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet, “As president, Clinton would refer to most of his formal remarks not as speeches but as ‘talks,’ subtly reminding his staff that he wanted to address Americans as adults to be persuaded…” That DNC “talk” clocked in at almost 6000 words, BTW.

When I think about the characteristics of the kinds of scripts I write, I tend to focus on the differences between audiences (especially between general audiences and specialized ones), and the differences between venues. What many people call “presentations” tend to be formal remarks to expert audiences. They often include slides (the subject of another blog) or handouts.

Venues can range from small rooms or events (including even weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc.), to keynotes at huge halls or auditoriums. Remarks at the smaller venues are generally more informal. The ideal for a speaker is to come across as if he or she is talking off the cuff, even if it took hours to prepare for the occasion. Audiences at the larger venues tend to expect more structured remarks, which are often what most people think of when they hear the term “speech.”

My advice is not to get wrapped around the definitions, but to focus on how you want to engage the particular audience through your spoken words.

FAQ: How Long Should My Speech Be?


Twenty to thirty minutes. Next question?

But seriously, folks…I strongly recommend to the executives I work with that they limit their remarks to 20 to 30 minutes. If you go longer, my experience has been (and research shows) that audiences start to let their minds wander, even if the speaker is as powerful as Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan.

To be sure, Steve Jobs was a master presenter, and he could keep audiences in the palm of his hand for a couple hours. However, if you look at complete videos of his presentations, you’ll find out that he doesn’t get carried away by the sound of his own voice. He uses video and audio clips. He brings out props to demonstrate, and he brings on other speakers.

Sometimes when I make my plea for brevity, the communications VP will tell me that the event organizers have asked the CEO to speak for “an hour.” My advice is always to keep the prepared remarks under 30 minutes, and fill the remaining time with Q&A. Or pull a Steve Jobs and bring along a great video.

FAQ: What’s the Difference Between a Speech Coach and a Speech Writer?


This week I’m adding a new feature to the blog: Speechwriting FAQs. As the name implies, each week I’ll be giving brief answers to some common questions about speeches and speech writing. Today’s FAQ:  speech coach, speechwriter, what’s the difference?

I usually answer by encouraging people to think about what made their favorite movie, play, or even stand-up comic so good. Chances are it was two things: the words the performers used and the way the words were presented. Put it another way, you enjoyed sitting in an audience when both the script and the performance were terrific.

The same applies to speeches. A great speech combines a terrific script with a great presentation of the script. Speech writers write the words for a speech or presentation. We focus on good structure, powerful turns of phrase, effective examples, etc. Speech coaches (often called presentation coaches) work with a speaker so he or she can present those scripted words in a manner that energizes and engages an audience.

Some people can both coach and write speeches well. But in most cases speakers benefit when they can find a coach and writer who can team together effectively.