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.

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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