Guest post by Brent Kerrigan, Global Speechwriter
First Time Confronted With A Stats N’ Numbers Porn Speech
One of the main reasons most high-level speeches fail is because they are dry, boring, cliché-driven formulas that are, almost without fail, completely uninteresting.
Whether it’s the politician talking about a “comprehensive review”, a preacher bemoaning the state of the world or perhaps the environmentalist spewing gaseous emissions of numbers and statistics, it’s all the same all the time.
Those, of course, are not the kinds of speeches we want to write if we’re to become better speechwriters. I hesitate to use the term “stories”, because this throws many egos off (stories are for kids!), so let’s instead talk about how we can end the stats n’ numbers orgy in speeches and “personalize” them.
First, let’s examine the main offenders.
Let’s use budget numbers as our first example. While working as a speechwriter with the Government of Canada I was regularly asked to incorporate the usual litany of seemingly awe-inspiring numbers: $23 million here, $50 million there, a few kajillion thrown in for good measure (and federal-provincial cost-sharing programs, don’t forget those!)
I wonder how many people have a concept of $1 million? Perhaps many. But $23 million? If we’re not bankers, the number probably means little. It soundshuge, it even sounds important, but how much is it really? What does it mean to us? Specifically, what does it mean in terms of my job? My house? My mortgage? What does it mean in terms of going to war? Paying for my kid’s education? What does it mean when I’m told my workplace will “rationalize” to achieve those numbers?
Speakers—their speechwriters—throw these numbers around without context. It’s like we’re all playing the same game. We all pretend to know what these massive numbers and statistics all mean. Who wants to plead ignorance, after all?
It’s not about being smart or stupid, it’s about clarity.
I currently write speeches about climate change and it’s the same stats n’ numbers orgy. I recently read a speech given by a government leader on the subject. It was the usual fare—dire stats at the beginning, hopeful numbers in the middle, and a good smattering of hopeful projections at the end. I don’t wish to identify the speaker (not a client), so let’s say the speech went something like this:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the window of opportunity for change is closing. Our analysis shows that if the global community does not come together in a systemic, holistic way, 58.7 per cent of island nations will face a reduction of 35.3 per cent of land coverage…etc..etc..”
This is, pardon my French, complete crap.
Yet we hear this language all the time.
Those numbers mean nothing. Nothing real. Nothing that makes me sit up and take action. Nothing that makes me say “holy shit Marge…maybe our backyard coal plant is a bad idea.”
Personalizing a speech means taking our numbers, statistics, policies, programs and—God-willing—our systemic holistic synergies and showing how they affect people in the real world.
So let’s take that previous bit of environmental number porn.
How can we personalize it?
Let’s try. Let’s pretend I’m the speaker and I want to talk about how much ocean levels are rising.
“Ladies and gentlemen, last year I travelled to the island nation of Gabba-Blabba. And when I got there, I wanted to see the beach at sunset. “I stood on the shore, my feet deep in the sand, and watched the sun go down as the waves rolled in. It was stunning. There’s not an artist in the world who could do it justice.
“A woman and her young daughter were also watching that sunset and we started talking. “And that woman told me a story. She told me to look out into the water. She said her family once lived beyond where it now lapped the shore.
“Her family had lived there for generations. Flood waters would come and go, but a few years ago the flood never receded. They were forced to move inland, and then move again and again. They lost their belongings, their jobs. Their crops were destroyed and they were always on the move.
“The woman told me that she was certain of one thing: that by the time her daughter reached her age, there would be no island at all.” “Ladies and gentlemen, 35 per cent is just a number. Behind that number though, is this woman, her children and all the people who live on this island. And that is why we must take action now….etc..etc.”
So, what do you think resonates better with an audience? “58.7 per cent of island nations will face a reduction of 35.3 per cent of land coverage” or the story about the woman on Gabba-Blabba?
I dramatized the previous story for effect. The point, however, is that we can personalize most of our speeches. In fact, my previous example could be improved by giving the woman a name. Personalizing a speech isn’t a rhetorical device. It’s not a trick of the trade. It’s important.
Again, let’s look at the efforts to address climate change. It’s a subject about which I feel strongly. I wouldn’t write about it if I didn’t. Those who have the facts, the statistics, the numbers, the truth on their side are losing the current battle to win hearts and minds (cliché alert!) because they’re speaking the wrong language. They’re caught up in stats, numbers and projections removed from any human connection—our pre-Gabba-Blabba example.
Their opponents however, aren’t bound by the same restrictions.
For example, what resonates better?
“We must act before the window of opportunity closes to reduce carbon-based emissions by 35 per cent”
“It’s all just a hoax.”
The “hoax” side has no problem with simplicity and personalization. They talk about coal plants that have been shut, Uncle Cletus who lost his job because of tree-huggin’ liberals, and Aunt Millie who says she could use it getting a bit warmer in the winter.
All the self-righteous anger in the world, all the ego-driven claims that you have “the facts” doesn’t mean a damn bit of difference if you’re not connecting with the people who need to hear your message.
Now, for an example of how it’s done right, I ask you to check out a speechwritten by Copenhagen-based speechwriter Rune Kier Nielsen (@runekier). Note how he personalizes the information provided through the character of Sarah. Excellent job. By the way, he won a Cicero award (annual awards given for great speeches) for it. Yet, how often do you hear climate change speeches like this?
Today we talked about budgets and climate change. But personalizing a speech—telling stories—works for almost any speech.
Look, it doesn’t need to be the Oprah Winfrey show. Personalizing a speech isn’t about going on stage and weeping about your father who never loved you or your mutt that just died. It’s about putting information into context. It’s about appealing to our basic need to make a connection with another human being.
We’re not robots. Not yet. Let’s speak in a language we all understand.
Brent Kerrigan is the Global Speechwriter: www.globalspeechwriter.com. He solves speech writing problems for high-level organizations. He always encourages the use of protection at a numbers orgy. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Tag: Speechwriting skills Brent Kerrigan