A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Monday, August 17, 2009
Elements - Audience Identification
Ever hear a politician speak to a room full of people - and spend the whole time expounding on the ninth letter of the alphabet? You know - “I did this, I did that, I made this happen?”
In my line of work, it’s an occupational hazard.
The danger with expounding on the ninth letter of the alphabet this way, is that the interest of the audience quickly evaporates. An audience wants to have some kind of shared connection with the speaker they are listening to. A successful speaker needs to establish “audience identification.” In other words, the speaker has to find a way to get the audience to identify with the speaker, or at the very least, with what is being said.
Repeatedly saying “I,” quickly erodes that identification. That repeated word soon becomes the focus of audience attention.
At the same time, the audience also wants to hear what the politician is doing for them, or, depending on your point of view, doing to them. They expect to hear what’s going on. It’s the fundamental basis of democracy. Voters make up their mind on who they will support in the next election, based on what they know about what has happened in the recent past.
This is a serious conundrum for our political speaker. Credit has to be taken for what is going right. Yet, taking too much of the credit, or worse, taking it in the wrong manner, is a sure-fire formula for losing audience attention and, thus, not getting the credit you deserve anyway.
There is a way around this for the wise political speaker. Instead of saying - “I got such and such a program enacted,” look for an opportunity to involve the audience.
How about - “Mrs. Mary Jones wrote a letter to my office.” Right away, the audience is involved, it’s a story, and it involves an average citizen - someone just like them. Perhaps people in the audience actually know Mary Jones. Perhaps she’s even there that night - in which case, the wise politician has her stand to be recognized, then goes on. “She asked why there wasn’t a program to do such and such. It was a good question, and no one we contacted in government had a good answer. Today, we have that program!”
Without ever saying the words “I or me,” and using “my” only once, our wise politician has made the audience understand that because Mary Jones came to his office with her problem, the program to solve that problem is now up and running.
Working together is a great way to maintain audience identification. A real-life example of it, is even better.
It’s probably not wise, or even possible in most cases, for a speaker to totally avoid using the first person. But over-use is a recipe for disaster.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.