By Tim Hayes
At a lunchtime gathering of speechwriters I attended last week in New York City, longtime political and business speechwriter Robert Lehrman shared some of the more potent and important lessons he’s learned along the way, and one hit me with a special resonance. He said, in describing what made the better speeches of his legendary career indeed better, “Evidence alone is not enough. It takes persuasive storytelling.”
Mr. Lehrman closed his comments to the roomful of speechwriting peers with another gem that I’ve stored in my memory bank and share with you here. He said, “Opening a speech with a story is the best way to help an audience with retaining the messages to follow – plus, people like it best when you open with a story.”
In a recent Newsweek profile of Al Gore and a new book he’s written, we find the following passage:
“To anyone with bad memories of how Gore’s fact-filled debate performances against George W. Bush in 2000 failed to connect with voters, it may come as no surprise that Our Choice has a graphic on ‘how a wind turbine works,’…But because of one sentence, and one chapter, it does surprise. The chapter is an astute analysis of the psychological barriers that keep most Americans from taking the threat of climate change seriously, his acknowledgment that emotion, not just reason, drives the decisions people make. The sentence is this: ‘Simply laying out the facts won’t work.’”
This shared perspective on the importance of appealing to emotion makes it no surprise that Mr. Lehrman served as a lead speechwriter for Mr. Gore in the Clinton Administration.
As a professional communications consultant, I know that my clients’ credibility and credence rest on a bedrock of verifiable and thoroughly vetted facts. As a professional speechwriter, I also know that my clients’ duty to their audience is to convey those facts within the context of relatable stories.
A speech is not a research paper standing on its hind legs. A speech must be a performance, a story, with a beginning, middle and end. The audience has no idea what’s coming. It’s all new to them. Spewing a recitation of cold facts and numbers at an audience goes beyond poor speechgiving – it’s unfair and disrespectful.
Organizations invite speakers because they have some level of expectation from that person regarding subject matter, expertise, insight, and revelation. Sure, facts and supporting data build the skeleton of the speech, but is that all there is? Think how uninteresting and indistinct the world would be if all you could see of anyone else was their skeleton.
No, it’s the flesh and blood that make people fascinating and different. In the same way, the flesh and blood of human experience and relatable stories that wrap around the factual skeleton of a speech give it life, make it memorable, and spur audiences to act. Because in the end, nobody likes a lecture, but everybody loves a good story.
Copyright 2009 Tim Hayes Consulting