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.

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.

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