Want to be a better speechwriter and public speaker? Think like a spy.

You’re wondering about that spycraft hook, aren’t you? I’ll get to that. It’ll all make sense once I’ve shared with you a bit of context.

speechwriter bubblesSpeechwriting is where I first cut my teeth in this trade. From the range of writing services I offer today, it remains among my most demanding work. I say this because a successful speech hinges, in a sense, on thousands of tiny moving parts—each having to function flawlessly every time. It’s not enough to research your subject exhaustively and to spend large chunks of time drafting your text. Nor is it enough to take the time to refine every key phrase so each one resonates with authenticity for your speaker.

You can do everything properly on the writing side of things and still completely bomb out there. Why is that?

This post on Shane Parrish’s always insightful, prolific blog got me thinking about a different way of answering that question.

Have a look at his summary of former FBI guy Robin Dreeke’s top-ten tips for building quick rapport with people. It applies rather well to speechwriting and public speaking.

All about building good rapport

Dreeke’s techniques come from a career in spycraft—knowing how to get people to talk. A great speechwriter and a talented speaker, on the other hand, are masters at persuading people to listen.

Both require a well-honed talent for building a good rapport with people—in other words, making people feel comfortable.

I’ve reordered Dreeke’s list a little, only to better reflect the unique priorities that come with writing a speech and delivering it to an audience.

1) Speak slowly
I’ve moved this one to the top of the list for a reason. It’s the mistake I see public speakers make most often (including yours truly). People speak too quickly at the podium either because they have too much to cover in too little time, or they don’t know their material as well as they should. Or both. Say more with fewer words. It beats trying to cram in all your ideas in a hurry. It’s a speech: not an auction.

2) Pay attention to body language
Great speakers spend their entire careers mastering this. We are hard-wired to pick up on subtle cues in what the body telegraphs wordlessly. And when things go wrong, it’s the speaker who tends to be the last person to figure this out. Practice often. Shoot videos of your presentation. Watch it with the volume turned down. What do you see?

3) Establish artificial time constraints
“I have three subjects to cover in this 10-minute report.” That’s how GE CEO Jack Welsh once opened his speech to shareholders. It’s a smart technique. Even the most indulgent of audiences secretly wants to know how long your speech is going to take to get through. Earning someone’s attention starts with showing respect for their time.

4) ‘Leggo that ego
I give this advice as often as a web copywriter as I do as a speechwriter: spend less time thinking about what matters to you and more about what matters to your audience. That starts with keeping your ego in check. Nothing you have to say—no matter how profound you think it is—adds up to much of anything unless you can earn and sustain your audience’s attention.

5) Ask: How? When? Why?
I’m fond of asking open-ended questions in a speech. Not just the ones for a Parliamentary audience, either. This rhetorical device can be as devastatingly effective in raising doubts about a counter argument as it can be in winning over an audience to your idea.

6) Validate others (your audience)
Don’t waste your audience’s time telling them things they already know. They’re here listening to you to get something useful: don’t be shy acknowledging that fact and being persuasive about it. And take special note of this gem of advice from Dreeke on that last point: “The difference between persuasion and manipulation is intent.”

7) Ask for help
As a rhetorical device, this can be really powerful. When you put a question to your audience, you’re asking for their help. For example: “Hands up, everyone who has ever had this happen to them…” People are more likely to stay focused when they have a personal stake in the point you’re looking to illustrate.

8) Quid pro quo: give something to take something
We live in a world where audience attention is scarce. To earn that attention, you have to do more than just deliver facts with your spoken-word delivery. Stop listing off things as if you were reciting a grocery list. Tell a story. When reporting on data in a speech, show the meaning behind the data and the relationship between the numbers.

9) Give a little something extra
Here, Dreeke talks about the importance of gift reciprocation to build rapport with someone. An audience is no different. Give them something they only could only get from you: personal anecdotes, a poignant story, an insider’s look at an historical event, new insight into a fact or a trend. Reciprocation takes many forms, including attention paid.

10) Manage your own expectations
The worst thing you can do is impose demands on your audience, expecting them to react emotionally on your cue. Of course you *hope* they will, and work hard to achieve it. But that’s different from expecting it. Know your audience: learn what kinds of business problems they have and put yourself in their shoes in trying to solve those problems. Not only will it make your writing tighter, it will help you communicate with greater empathy.

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