I have a confession to make—despite the fact I am a writer, I’m really not all that great a communicator. I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I, to make sure we understood one another, echoed back what we thought the other was saying, only to find out that we were wayyyy off base. After 22 years of marriage, that’s messed up.
All writing has a purpose: to educate, entertain, motivate or persuade. It’s the same with verbal communication. Whether giving a toast at a wedding, instructing a course, or planning an event, solid communication is key.
Here’s what I’ve learned about communicating from writing novels:
1. Start with action. No, I don’t mean an explosion or car chase. I don’t even mean making a joke, unless it’s a really, really good one. But just as a reader gets bored with flowery description and narrative and skips to the part where something happens, so your listeners will tune you out until they have a clue where you’re taking them. Put your bottom line up front.
For example, in The Big Bang Theory (S3-E10), Penny wants to know about Leonard’s job. Sheldon sits down to explain it to her.
“It is there, in ancient Greece, that our story begins. It’s a warm summer evening circa 600 BC. You’ve finished your shopping at the local market, or agora, and you look up at the night sky…” This tells Penny nothing about Leonard’s work as a physicist.
When Penny later asks him to bottom line it for her, he finally comes out with, “Leonard is attempting to learn why subatomic particles move the way they do.”
Eureka! A point!
2. Use active words. Active words sharpen your focus and strengthen your message. It snags your listeners’ attention. Writers know to avoid passive voice: “It was my shoes that were liked by a boy.” Instead, say, “A boy liked my shoes.” Even better, use specific details. “The teenager admired my platform heels.”
3. Pacing counts. No, I don’t mean pacing across a stage as you pontificate. I’m referring to the rhythm and tempo of your sentences. One velocity can’t be sustained over a long period of time. There must be peaks and valleys, fast action interspersed with resting points. If the pace moves too quickly, it exhausts your listeners. If it lags, they become bored.
For example, in 1995, Russell Baker, an American columnist and political satirist, gave the commencement address at Connecticut College.
In this fast-paced portion of his speech, he said, “They didn’t listen. They went forth anyhow. And look what happened. Within a year Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered. Then Nixon took us all to The Watergate. Draft riots. Defeat in Vietnam. John Lennon killed. Ronald Reagan and his trillion-dollar deficit.” I can feel my heart jumping around just reading this! Oh my God oh my God oh my God!
In contrast, in 2005 Alan Greenspan gave a commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania. Here is one paragraph from his speech.
“The principles governing business behavior are an essential support to voluntary exchange, the defining characteristic of free markets. Voluntary exchange, in turn, implies trust in the word of those with whom we do business. To be sure, all market economies require a rule of law to function–laws of blah blah blah. Blah blah zzzzzzzz.”
Using both of these techniques in concert will create a blended pace.
4. Stop when you’re done. If you’ve developed a solid argument about banning Plum Pudding as a dessert (and, for the record, I come down solidly in favor of it), and you’ve laid out your points logically and concisely, you’ve done all you can to persuade your listeners. You don’t need a caveat, an epilogue, a glossary of terms, or endless pages of genealogy. Yes, George R. R. Martin, I’m talking about you.
The next time you join Toastmasters or are invited to speak at the National Conference on Plum Pudding, look at some of the principles of strong writing, and use those lessons to help you craft an amazing presentation.
Thank you, and good night.