It's No Mystery
Let's imagine you've been called on to speak about your favorite hero, Ted Trueheart. He's brave. He's exciting. You want to start with a story showing your hero in action - maybe something like this:
Ted Trueheart moved down the alley. He was scared. Somewhere in the alley, Freddy the Slime was hidden by shadows. The alley was carefully examined by Ted. Freddie was homicidal, and he had to be apprehended before too much time elapsed.
Exciting, isn't it? But if you expect to find your fellow Toastmasters trembling with anticipation, think again. Half of them are already asleep.
What's wrong? Why do some speeches hum with life while others play dead?
Good speeches have one thing in common: Their words create pictures in the listener's mind. Whether it's a lecture on rocket science or the latest antics of Ted Trueheart, a good speech grabs your audience in the opening, hurls them through your points, and rockets them into your ending. How do you reform speeches gone bad? Return with me to the saga of Ted Trueheart and we'll start with...
Ted Trueheart moved down the alley. This sentence doesn't work because the verb isn't doing its job. It's weak and general. In short, it's lazy.
All verbs describe action, but the action can be general or specific, depending on the verb. Moved is general. It gets our hero down the alley, but nothing more. The listeners have no clue how Ted got down the alley, so they can't make a mental image.
Specific verbs describe a particular type of action - the more specific the description, the stronger the verb and the sharper the picture inside your listener's head.
In the sentence above, walked would be stronger than moved, but slunk, crept, or sneaked are stronger still, and so are staggered, limped, or ambled. Each conjures a different vision and says something distinctive about the action.
One more thing to remember: A verb may be general in one context and specific in another. This happens when a verb is taken out of its usual association and used in a novel way. For example:
Ted Truehart moved down the alley is general, but the phrase, Ted Trueheart flew down the alley, heels pounding the pavement with a staccato rap, is easy to visualize.
"There is weird power in a spoken word," wrote Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim. That power comes from a verb - a precise, unique verb that exactly describes the action. Spend the time to look for it.
As speakers, we're often aware that our verbs are weak, but we don't have a clear idea how to repair them. Instead of searching for a strong verb, we reach for an adverb and say something like this: Ted Trueheart moved slowly down the alley.
As with verbs, there are general and specific adverbs. A general adverb like slowly can't invoke a mental image because too many actions can be described that way. Slowly can be clouds passing over the moon or a fighter pilot launching a missile a heartbeat too late.
Putting a general adverb with a general verb is like multiplying fractions: The product is less than the parts. Vague, general adverbs only weaken the verbs they modify.
Every time you plan to use an adverb ask yourself, "Does this really clarify the action I'm describing?" If it doesn't, leave it out. If you explore, you'll often find a specific verb to replace the verb/adverb combination. The result is a vivid phrase.
Passive voice sentences are the most common felons of weak communication. In these sentences, the subject of the verb receives the action rather than performing it. The person, animal, or object doing the action is either de-emphasized or not mentioned at all. Freddy the Slime was hidden, The alley was carefully examined, and He had to be apprehended are all passive phrases.
Passive voice robs a sentence of action. If the subject is being acted upon by some vague, outside force, the listener has trouble picturing the scene. But action builds images. Active voice sentences are direct and easy to visualize because the listener sees the subject doing the acting.
Not all sentences should be active voice. Sometimes you don't know (or don't want to reveal) who or what is doing the action. Other times the person or thing receiving action is more important than the one acting. If you want vibrant speeches, though, most of your sentences should be told in the active voice.
And neither do speakers who try to convey feelings or emotions. Also - while we're on the subject of the dead - the phrase He was scared has about as much life as a three-day-old cadaver.
Again, a weak, general word isn't doing its work. People can't make an image out of scared, just as they can't make a picture out of happy, sad, ecstatic, frightened, or any other emotion. They're abstract concepts. That's the reason effective speakers follow the writer's adage of "show, don't tell." What your audience can picture is a response to an emotion.
Take the concept of fear. What responses might you expect?
These are cliched, but they'll do for what we want. If you describe a reaction to an emotion, rather than just hanging a label on the emotion itself, your audience will envision the result.
Let's return to our hero rearmed with an arsenal of strong verbs, no adverbs, and active voice sentences. Now Ted, and the story, has an attitude:
Ted Trueheart crept down the alley, his heart hammering under his ribs. Somewhere ahead, Freddy the Slime crouched in the shadows. Ted's eyes lanced the darkness for a stir, a flicker, anything. Freddie was a killer, and Ted had to catch him before it was too late.
Giving a clear, exciting speech is no mystery. You just have to unravel it one clue at a time.