It All Starts With A Script

Write a Story, and Write Like You Talk

Article Index

When I started my first job as a junior copy-writer, my boss at the ad agency told me that anything I can put inside quotation marks would be read 75 percent more than anything else I write 1 because readers would think it's important. "People don't concentrate," he told me, "they scan when they read." People do exactly the same thing when they listen to someone speak.

That's why smart companies make their sales staffs attend listening seminars, so they don't miss what their customers are saying. And that's why, if you want people hanging onto your every word (putting everything you say inside quotation marks, so to speak), there is one famous person and one magic word you should remember: The person is Steven Spielberg, and the magic word is storytelling.

To movie-making insiders and aficionados, Spielberg is known for his detailed storyboarding. Although he's a world-famous movie director, he considers himself a storyteller, and he refers to his art as storytelling.

As a Toastmaster, chances are you already know how to storyboard. Spielberg does it by drawing little pictures of every shot in his movie, and you probably do it by organizing your verbal presentation. Apart from what you and Spielberg do to earn your respective livings, there is no difference between the structure of his movies and the structure of your presentations: There is a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The difference between the two of you - not counting salaries - is who he does, and what I'd bet you're not doing.

Steven Spielberg is always telling a story. Are you? If you're not telling a story, or using storytelling techniques, you're losing a big bet with your audience. They won't be hearing everything you say, and they may miss the most important point of all, so if you'd like to change the odds and pull all the chips to your side of the table, this is how you do it:

First, talk to only one person. It doesn't matter whether there are eight or 800 people in the room, in your mind's eye you are talking to only one person. I first heard that advice from a respected radio personality who admitted to a guest on his show that one of the secrets to his success was that he could make all his listeners - millions of them - believe that he was having a private conversation with each of them, and when he had a guest, he could make his listeners believe they were eavesdropping on the conversation. And even when he made that admission on his show - to millions of people at once - in my mind's ear he was sharing that only with me. It is a truly awesome technique, and all you have to do to pull it off choose one audience member, someone with a friendly face and smiling eyes, and in your mind he or she is the only person you're talking to.

Not everyone learns from this. I once gave this advice to a well-known politician. He thanked me sincerely for the advice, left the cabinet room, walked into his office, sat down in front of his blazing fireplace, looked into the television camera that was taping his address and began, "My friends..."

Since it's always valuable to put yourself in the other person's place, think of how you would feel if you were one of 500 people in an audience. Would you prefer that the person on the podium treated you as one of many, or that he or she seemed to talk directly to you?

Second, since you're talking to only one person, be sure it sounds like you're talking to only one person. The word you can't use enough is "you," and the words to avoid are, "all of you here tonight," "everyone in this room," and like that politician who was too busy to learn, "My friends ...."

Making it sound like you're talking to only one person has a lot to do with your choice of words. Would you invite a neighbor for coffee and then sit across from her in your living room and say, "We must be prepared to commit and dedicate ourselves to ...?" Not for long you wouldn't. Your neighbor would be gone before her coffee turned cold.

The main difference between "making a speech" and telling a story, or using storytelling techniques, is your script. You probably refer to it as your "speech," which is fine, but if you want people shaking your hand afterward and telling you what a great speech it was, think of it as a script.

Let's take an example of saying the same thing two different ways. Pretend you're listening to the heads of two different advertising agencies who both want to win your business. Here's one way of trying to convince you:

"At Smith Advertising we take every opportunity afforded us to assure you, our client, that our own due diligence to your objectives will be of the very highest priority. Impeccable account management is imperative to us so that not only your goals and objectives are met to your satisfaction at all times, but also that the results we have agreed to will be met."

Here's another way of saying it:

"At Jones Advertising, we look after our clients the old-fashioned way, because we learned long ago that if anything slips through the cracks, we have an unhappy client. And no matter how good we are at getting results for you, if you're an unhappy client, we're an unhappy agency. And if there's anything we like to be, it's a happy agency with happy clients."

Which one sounds best to you?

What makes a difference is that one person is speaking at you, and the other one is talking to you. Another difference - the Big One - is that one person is speaking, and the other one is talking.

The most common mistake speakers make is that they try to sound articulate. They don't understand that while they might get points for articulation, if they can do it well, that's not why they are behind the lectern. The only reason they're there, unless the reason is purely philanthropic, is to persuade people to either think something or do something. The secret to persuasion is to write like you talk.

What's really important to keep in mind is that an audience is captive only in body, not in mind. It's your job, as a speaker, just like it's Steven Spielberg's, as a storyteller, to capture your audience's minds and emotions.

That doesn't mean consciously trying to win them over, because the more you try to do that, the more you'll turn them off. It means keeping them interested, and nothing will do that more than a good story. Here's how you write a good story:

Sit down and pretend you're writing a friend a letter in longhand. I'm a professional writer, but when I get stuck on my keyboard, I always turn to my worktable and start writing in longhand.

Start at the beginning and take them step-by-step. You might want to try something like this: "I came here tonight to tell you why I think it's important for you to...." And then maybe something like this: "I remember when I first thought about .... "

Just write the way you would talk to a friend - and the key word is talk. I write a newspaper column and I'm good at stringing lots of words together in one sentence - I've gone over a hundred - with a lot of rhythm and many years of studied punctuation. I consider it my duty to move my readers from word to word in a fluid motion that is great to read. But I sure wouldn't want to read my words out loud to my readers, or to anyone else for that matter.

There's an enormous difference between words that look good on paper and words that sound good when spoken. I'm sure you've heard those radio and television commercials where the announcer is talking so fast that you can't absorb anything he's saying. You know why they sound that way? Because the writers, believe it or not, never read the commercial out loud before going to the recording studio. They realize too late that there are too many words, but the client has already approved them, so the poor announcers have to sweat for their fees, while the writers are safe, and the client gets shortchanged.

It never ceases to amaze me how many famous and not-so-famous people I've seen in person and on television shortchange themselves with words that looked good on paper but sounded awkward out loud.

"Didn't they even read it out loud once?" I often ask myself. I think the truth is that they read it aloud many times. It's just that when you step onto the podium or walk into a boardroom it's different, as you well know. When it gets to the real thing, why beat yourself up with sentences you know you got through with more hope than reality when you practiced?

So it all starts, just like every morning does in Hollywood, with a script. Write a story, and write like you talk. Try it out loud. You'll probably go back again to make it more conversational, but when it starts coming together, when your script is beginning to sound as good out loud as it looks on paper, you're on your way to a winner.

After that, well you know what's after that: One person, and all of them in the palm of your hand.

By Ken_Summerfield

View articles on similar topics