Make your audience think

I recently completed the Mentoring project in the Toastmasters Competent Leader Manual. I was mentoring an experienced member of the club who has already completed their Competent Communicator qualification.

As a novice speaker, I treated this project as a learning experience. I wasn’t intending to offer any profound advice. I know, from experience that having someone look over your speech is extremely helpful. When writing it is very easy to lose sight of the big picture and start obsessing about individual sentences.  If you show your work to someone they can offer a fresh perspective and point out all of the obvious things that you have missed.

It was interesting to see the speech writing process from someone elses perspective. I was given the opportunity to view an early draft and offer feedback. On the night of the speech we had a private rehearsal (in a storage cupboard as we couldn’t find any free rooms).

The most interesting line of the speech was: “I noticed there was a commotion”. This line hung on its own without any explanation of what the commotion was or any allusion to it later on. I initially pointed this out as an oversight, but he responded that he was deliberately withholding the details. He was introducing an unexplained event to make the audience think.

As a technical trainer I am very used to presenting course materials that are unambiguous and logical. It hasn’t really occurred to me to introduce mysterious events, but in some situations it really makes sense. People are drawn in by the unexplained. That’s why TV shows like Lost are so successful: they introduce mystery after mystery, and we are so keen to find out what happens we watch it obsessively (eventhough a complete reveal would be an inevitable disappointment).

Last year there was an excellent episode of Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe in which a series of television writers talked about their approach to writing. The cast included a varied set of drama, sitcom and soap writers. It was such a beautiful episode, full of interesting insights, that I wish I could point you somewhere where you could buy it. But for now you can see it (possibly illegally) on YouTube.

Russel T Davis

Russell T. Davies (creator of Queer as Folk and the latest Dr. Who) explained how bad writers will often create unrealistic dialogue where characters will converse in a functional, unrealistic way to let the audience know what is going on. He quoted an awful opening line of an unnamed drama: “Hey sis, happy wedding day!”. He then counted off the plot points that this had conveniently revealed. He asserted that this style of writing is lazy and the only alternative is to work harder at moving the story along in a more realistic way.

When writing a speech it is easy to get caught up in functional details. But moving things along in a logical, informative way isn’t the only approach. Some thing have to be stated to setup an anecdote. But details can be easily missed out. There is nothing wrong with forcing your audience to think about what your saying rather than spoon feeding them every minutia. Presenting functional information can be dry and soporific. If the audience is allowed to use their imagination to fill in the gaps the story will be much more vivid. If questions are raised but not answered the audience will be left thinking about the speech long after it has finished.

“I would rather be confused for five minutes than be bored for five seconds” - Jimmy McGovern

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