How Good Writers Can Also Be Strong Speakers
By Joel Hall, M.A.
In my senior year of high school, I won top honors in a short story competition open to all public high school students in my home state of Virginia. Before graduation, several students were recognized for their accomplishments in front of the entire senior class. I remember getting on stage, being asked to give a few words and drawing an enormous blank. Until that moment, I had never considered that writing might put me in front of a physical audience.
Many writers aren’t natural speakers. But PR professionals have to be adept at both writing and speaking. Whether pitching journalists, clarifying the jargon of experts or selling ourselves to prospective clients, we need to speak well.
Here are some ideas that have helped me become a better writer and speaker:
Prepare for conversations.
It might seem obvious, but preparation makes conversations more efficient and beneficial for everyone involved. I learned this lesson as a reporter.
Before entering public relations, I spent a decade writing for daily newspapers. My first big interview was with the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. His handlers had told me that I would have no more than 20 minutes to interview him about his latest album and an upcoming performance — not much time to get what I would need to write a compelling story. But by researching publicly available information about Masekela, listening to the album in advance and deciding where I wanted the conversation to go before the interview started, I was able to ask the right questions and honor his time.
Today, as a PR professional who has represented companies that make building, kitchen and bath products, I often interview contractors and product managers to develop case studies and thought-leadership pieces for trade magazines. Contractors are particularly strapped for time; every minute they spend talking is one they don’t dedicate to new business.
As communicators, we should always respect our clients’ time by being prepared. It can involve researching their products and services, staying abreast of industry trends that affect our clients, and learning acronyms and abbreviations used in their industries.
During interviews, the less time that subject matter experts have to spend explaining background information to PR account executives, the more time they’ll have to provide insights about their products.
Stick to crucial points.
A common mistake when speaking to important audiences is to say too much. In job interviews, it might mean giving long-winded answers to questions. In meetings with potential clients, saying too much might take the form of a huge presentation deck that focuses on the consultant’s company more than the client’s concerns. In public speaking, it might mean asking the audience to remember a dozen vague points rather than a few memorable concepts.
Even when presented flawlessly, information that doesn’t serve the audience’s needs only hurts the speaker. Before speaking, we have to choose information the audience needs to hear. Oratium, a Billings, Mont.-based messaging consultancy, recommends limiting all presentations to three or four key messages. The idea, as they put it, is to “powerfully land a small number of big ideas.”
Studies suggest the human brain can only pay attention to four things at once. If a presentation to a potential client is called “Ten Ways We Can Improve Your Organization,” the client will probably remember only three or four, and maybe not the ones that would close the deal. Sticking to crucial ideas during presentations puts the needs of the audience first and produces better results.
Sally Hogshead is an award-winning advertising writer who helps businesses and individuals craft captivating messages. In her book “Fascinate,” she writes that such messaging “provokes strong and immediate emotional reactions, creates advocates, becomes cultural shorthand for a specific set of actions or values, incites conversation, forces competitors to realign around it, and triggers social revolutions.”
Any speaker can be fascinating by turning the “ordinary into [the] emotional,” she argues. That way, people focus on you and are “more likely to believe, care about, and retell your message,” Hogshead writes.
The short story I wrote in high school was a fictional account of working in a memory-care center where I had volunteered. The story was about the extraordinary lives that many residents had enjoyed before their memories started to fade, and one resident who struggled to remember his daughter’s name but was flooded with memories when he played piano. The story was also about those who work behind the scenes every day to help people with memory loss live with dignity.
I failed to express those points while accepting my award, but my story struck an emotional chord with those who read it. When properly conveyed, the same emotion that works on paper can reach people through spoken presentations. According to Hogshead, emotion lets audiences “stop thinking and start feeling.” A personal story that empowers or comforts an audience by engendering trust can be as effective as a cautionary tale that denotes authority or challenges popular assumptions. Making a personal connection is the key.
Just like writing, speaking is a muscle that must be exercised. Through preparation and by emphasizing audience-centered messages and emotion, even the most introverted writers can become charismatic speakers.