Speechless in Bangkok

A good speech can change the world. A bad speech just takes up everybody's time.

My name is Jakkrit Srivali. For the past decade and a half, I've been writing and editing speeches for the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I'm still learning.

Writing speeches is not only about mastery of language. It also draws upon a multitude of other skills. Come discuss them with me, and let's improve our speechwriting together.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

How to Keep It Simple, Stupid

Those who've heard me talk about the the KISS principle may wonder how exactly one goes about keeping things simple. Apparently there is a book by Chip and Dan Heath that explains just that. Read about it on the Lifehack website.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Getting Things Done

I'm one of those people who fell in love with David Allen's system of Getting Things Done.

If you're totally unfamiliar with the system, this webpage offers a pretty good summary:

Here is a neat implementation of the system:

And one for the procrastinators out there:

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Study Groups

Just heard the Permsec give a talk on how "study groups" might help the work of the MFA. Each group would be led by a shepherd and assistant shepherd (although that does not necessarily mean the group members are sheep). It would conduct studies in assigned areas, such as global and regional security, promote certain diplomatic objectives, such as more effective networking with the local diplomatic community, and perform certain tasks, such as updating and enhancing the MFA's website. Such groups would ease the burden of the departments that cover such matters.

I think such groups would indeed be helpful. The Permsec has my admiration for caring enough to think up ways to lighten the load of harried MFA officers. My only concern is that it sounds like more work. Most officers are already overloaded with their day-to-day work. I'm not sure how eager they would be to take up the additional workload participation in a study group would entail. Time, after all, is a limited resource, no matter how good you are at multi-tasking.

My view is that productivity needs to be put at the top of the agenda. We need to be able to accomplish more in the time we have. Study groups are a good idea, but to make them work in the long run, we need to learn how to be more productive and manage our time better.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The deadliness of deadlines

When you're given an assignment, try to work backwards from the date of delivery. For example, if the person is due to give the speech on July 1, make sure that he/she gets the final draft about a week before that date. This way, he/she would be able to review it, make any corrections, or send it back to you to do a complete rewrite (just kidding, if it's that bad, he/she is more likely to assign it to someone more trusted). I've seen cases where the draft was received the day before the date of delivery. Not good. Better to set your own deadline, with some flexibility built in. For example, 3 days to do the research, 2 days to come up with ideas, 3 days to do the actual writing. And let's not forget to pick the brains of others who may have ideas you can use in the speech.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Kitchen Sink School of Speechwriting

This is a scenario you're likely to run into sooner or later at the MFA.

Your boss needs to give a speech at an international conference. The problem is that there are more than 100 countries participating, which means -- no, not that there will be a lot of hot air -- that each speaker will be allowed only 7-8 minutes.

What you need is a concise message that you can develop in the time allotted. But chances are that, since speeches tend to be committee efforts, you -- as the poor sap responsible for putting up the first draft -- will get a lot of ideas thrown at you. When those people are all your betters, in seniority at least, you will be under pressure to include all their ideas in your draft.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to put it all together and make sense of the whole mix.

For a regular 20-minute speech, you can get away with a laundry list structure, in which you devise some high concept to serve as the "chapeau" for the speech. But for a seven-minute address, that's not easy, because the laundry list will look too much like a laundry list.

One solution would be to come up with a killer high concept, and use all those ideas as illustrations of your main point. Tough, I know.

Another way is to cut things out that don't fit your argument. Much of the time, the people who throw those ideas at you won't remember what they said.

So, happy writing, and may you never face writer's block!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Story to Tell

Those of you who have been around long enough at the MFA may have heard higher-ups say that they want their speech to tell a story--to show that they have a "story to tell."

So far, however, I have yet to see an MFA speech that was a story well told.

The reason may be that we foreign service officers are not storytellers by inclination or training. Most of us have backgrounds in the social sciences. We can write talking points, concept papers, quasi-academic position papers and non-papers, but when it comes to telling a story through a speech, it seems we're a bit out of our depth.

One of humanity's most powerful intellectual hungers is the hunger for a good story. A movie can have whiz-bang special effects and A-list actors but it will bomb at the box office if it doesn't have a good story well told. (Check out Robert McKee's eye-opening book, Story.)

If you want your speech to tell a story, what you need to do is to bone up on your storytelling skills (duh!). Remember, a speech usually runs around 20 minutes. So it can't be a novel-length story like The Brothers Karamazov, more like a Wallace and Gromit short. The story has to be fairly simple, backed up with compelling evidence and told in an engaging style.

As for structure, learn from Hollywood: pose a question the audience wants answered, unfold the story and build suspense, then bring it to a climax and resolution. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

Storytelling techniques can be used to liven up not only speeches, but most public communications, even PowerPoint presentations.

There are plenty of storytelling and screenwriting resources on the Web, but that's for another post (this one was inspired by a book I came across on the Web called Beyond Bullet Points, which teaches you how to make those usually stupor-inducing presentations exciting--I mean, who ever thought PowerPoint presentations could be interesting?).

So next time you're faced with that blank screen, give a thought on what the story is that you want to tell. And always practice, practice, practice.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Welcome to my speechwriting blog!

This blog is an extension of a project that I recently initiated at the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs: an informal "speechwriting study group" for colleagues who wish to improve their English writing skills.

This blog won't necessarily limit itself to writing. After all, speechwriting requires a wide range of skills other than linguistic fluency.

Through this blog, I hope to provide you over the coming months (and years?) with tips on speechwriting, questions for you to ponder (and that I haven't figured out), and assorted materials that I hope will be useful.
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