Editor’s note: Three years ago, I published a post containing 11 things that journalists find newsworthy. Since then, many readers have added their thoughts to mine—so today, this list becomes the 16 things reporters consider newsworthy.
If you’ve ever pitched a story idea to a reporter by phone, you know how hard it can be to succeed.
When reporters say “no,” the person pitching them on the other end of the phone often protests, “But this issue is so important!” They’re probably right. But there’s a big difference between what you consider important and what the reporter considers newsworthy.
As an example, more than 35 million people are living with HIV worldwide. That’s an important story. But in the eyes of reporters, that story will be no more important tomorrow than it is today—unless something happens related to HIV today. If physicians discover a new vaccine or a drug company pledges to provide free drugs to one million HIV patients in Africa, the “important” issue will suddenly become “newsworthy.”
As a spokesperson, it’s important for you to understand what reporters consider newsworthy. You can often propel your story from important to newsworthy just by highlighting a different angle.
So take out that story you’re about to pitch and see which of the following 16 elements it has (hopefully it has several). If you’re not prioritizing those elements enough, turn them into your lead!
1. Conflict: Reporters are professional storytellers, and good stories contain conflict. If you disagree with a competitor’s approach, for example, you’re more likely to receive coverage than if you agree.
2. Local: Most news organizations cover a specific geographic range. A newspaper in Iowa may report on a local charity event, but is unlikely to report on a new condo development in Florida (unless a well-known Iowa entrepreneur is the development’s lead investor).
3. Incident: Anything that goes wrong has the potential to become newsworthy, such as an industrial explosion, a car crash, or a school shooting.
4. Extremes or superlatives: Reporters love extremes or superlatives: the first, the last, the best, the worst, the biggest, the smallest. If your story contains one, highlighting it will usually make it more newsworthy.
5. New: It’s no coincidence that the word “news” contains the word “new.” News stories have to answer the question, “why now?” Stories that don’t are considered “old news”—or worse, “no news”—and usually receive little coverage.
6. Clickable: This is a new category, spawned by the popularity of news and entertainment websites such as BuzzFeed and Upworthy. Because they depend upon clicks to draw readers, and thus advertisers, they’re more likely to run your story if it helps them attract a large audience. Think in terms of provocative, highly emotional, and downright weird stories, images, and videos.
7. Timely and Relevant: Timely stories, often about an upcoming event, are often considered newsworthy, as are stories relevant to the news organization’s specialty. An upcoming hearing at your local statehouse about a topic that affects the state’s senior citizens, for example, is a good example—and the story will be of greater interest to a news organization that covers local politics than one that doesn’t.
8. News You Can Use: Reader Fletcher Doyle, a former journalist, recommended this category. He writes: “Tell me something that will help my readers, and tell me how it will help them.” For example, if a local Department of Motor Vehicles introduces a new auto registration process that helps drivers avoid standing in line for two hours, local outlets might be interested in the story.
9. Scandal: The Congressman who hides money in his freezer, the hedge fund manager who rips off his clients, and the music mogul who murders his companion are almost guaranteed to be deemed newsworthy.
10. David vs. Goliath: In many stories, there is a “big guy” and a “little guy.” Since the media often view their role as being the protector of the exploited, the little guy usually receives more sympathetic coverage.
11. Incompetence: The corporate executive, politician, or celebrity who can’t seem to get it right will almost always draw the critical eye of the press.
12. Surprising: Stories with an unexpected hook are candy to reporters. If your study discovers that fried foods have previously undiscovered health benefits, you can bet the media will lavish your work with coverage. That story, incidentally, would also make me very happy.
13. Hypocrisy: Say you’re an anti-gay rights politician who gets caught with a gay lover. Or the president of an animal shelter who’s caught abusing animals. There are few stories as delicious to reporters as powerful people betraying their own publicly-stated positions—and they’re almost guaranteed to remain in the headlines for several days or weeks.
14. Emotion: Reader William Runge added a category he called “heartstrings.” Juliet C. agreed, pointing out that many stories are neither surprising nor new—but that by digging deeper, you can often uncover a story worth telling. For example, imagine you released a new product two years ago. It’s no longer “news”—but if you’ve just learned of someone using the product in an unexpected, potentially life-altering way (e.g. a technology product that unexpectedly helped a hearing impaired child hear for the first time), reporters will eagerly share the news.
15. Milestones: Reader Susan Pepperdine suggested this category, pointing out that “the seven billionth baby on Earth” was newsworthy, but “the baby born just before seven billion and the next one after were not newsworthy.” Some anniversaries are inconsequential—few journalists care that your business just celebrated its 35th anniversary—but others, such as 9/11, will be noteworthy for decades to come.
16. Narrative Extenders: This new category is most often seen in politics. For example, a small political gaffe might not normally receive much attention—unless it’s committed by someone with a long history of committing gaffes. Or perhaps a politician with a bullying streak gives a sarcastic answer to a constituent, confirming the “bully” narrative the media had already established about that person.
What have I missed? Please add your thoughts to the comments section below.
Don’t miss a thing! Click here to instantly join our mailing list and receive the best of the blog twice each month.
I’ve rarely seen a beloved celebrity fall from grace as abruptly as Bill Cosby.
Within just a few days of numerous rape and sexual assault allegations being leveled against him, Cosby’s brand as the venerated Dr. Cliff Huxtable devolved into a much darker public perception: serial rapist.
If he’s completely innocent of all of the allegations being leveled against him—and the reported facts make that difficult to believe—his attempts to mitigate the stunning damage to his career, reputation, and legacy have been disastrous.
I already covered some of the mistakes Cosby made in an earlier post. This month-end post will add a few new thoughts.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, Cosby’s attempt to manage this scandal by refusing to speak when asked about the charges during a nationally broadcast NPR interview only brought more attention to the allegations.
Several of my blog’s readers said that Cosby did the right thing by offering no comment, arguing that any comment would have only fueled the story. But even if they’re right, Cosby should have turned down the interview outright if he wasn’t prepared to deliver a substantive response to an obvious question.
Video of Cosby applying pressure to a reporter from the Associated Press was, in many ways, even more telling. When the reporter did his job by asking Cosby about the allegations, Cosby challenged the journalist’s “integrity,” and asked him to “scuttle” that part of the interview. If Cosby is indeed guilty of some or all of the allegations against him, this video offers an insight into his modus operandi.
Cosby made other major crisis communications mistakes along the way. His lawyer’s original statement read as follows:
“Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.” – John P. Schmitt, lawyer for Bill Cosby
Cosby’s attorney had to retract and reissue that statement in order to clarify that it did not apply to one of Cosby’s accusers. And when accused of being a serial rapist, how is it germane to include that, “at age 77, he is doing his best work?”
Although many PR professionals have written posts about Bill Cosby, the truth is that if he’s guilty, his is not a PR problem. No amount of good communications can rescue a serial rapist—and NBC, Netflix, TV Land, and several concert venues that have either canceled or postponed his appearances seem to agree.
What can Cosby do now?
If he is innocent, he should have already loudly, publicly, and consistently declared so. At this point, he might give a prime time interview to a trusted anchor and answer every question posed to him directly. Some of my readers argued against that, saying he’s in a “no win” position. I disagree. Viewers are smart enough to decide for themselves whether he appears credible—which he should, if he’s innocent. He’s unlikely to do that, of course, which signals to many people that there’s truth to the allegations.
If he’s guilty, there’s only one thing he can do to restore any part of his legacy: Admit it, pay the legal and financial consequences of his actions, and dedicate the rest of his life and resources to sexual assault and rape causes. I wouldn’t hold my breath for that to happen, either.
Instead, Cosby has chosen the middle ground—allowing his attorney to attack the women who accused him of sexual assault and trying to muddy public perception just enough to allow Cosby to maintain a portion of his career. Cosby’s attorney has every right to challenge inconsistent facts, of course—but instead, he’s called into question the very idea that an honest accuser would have waited so long to tell their stories (in many cases, they tried to—but their stories were reportedly “scuttled,” often as a result of pressure from Cosby and his team). And Cosby may have benefitted from a lack of physical evidence: a Pennsylvania district attorney who considered sexual assault charges against him in 2005 recently said, “I thought he did it.”
There’s virtually nothing Cosby can do at this point to prevent these allegations from being included in the first paragraph of his obituary. Based on the available facts and paired with his incomplete responses, that seems entirely well deserved.
Don’t miss a thing! Click here to instantly join our mailing list and receive the best of the blog twice each month.
In their wonderful book Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath offer two ways to describe a pomelo to a person who hasn’t heard of it.
The first way is to infuse the definition with detail:
“A pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart.”
The second way is to draw an accessible analogy instead:
“A pomelo is basically a supersized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind.”
The second version works better, they write, because it succeeds in “tapping the existing memory terrain of your audience. You use what’s already there.” Since the audience understands what a grapefruit is, you begin with that, creating a building block that allows you to add another detail that taps into something the learner already knows, then another, then another.
Too often, I find that physicians and scientists revert to using the first type of definition. They explain whatever they’re talking about in the type of unhelpful detail that leaves an audience confused. So I was delighted when I saw a physician named Devi Nampiaparampil on CNN last week to discuss a new pathology report which found that Robin Williams had been suffering from Lewy body dementia.
Fast forward to 4:54 to see the interview below; alternatively, you can click here to see the interview without having to fast forward.
Dr. Devi did a great job of explaining the science behind Lewy body dementia by drawing upon what viewers already knew. To explain how the brain rewards certain behaviors with the chemical dopamine, she drew an analogy to potty training a child or training a pet.
Whereas many physicians would have started by describing the pomelo—or Lewy body dementia—in great detail, Dr. Devi started with the more helpful version—the “supersized grapefruit” approach. She didn’t focus on her own concerns about coming across as “smart” or “credible” (although she accomplished both), but focused squarely on helping viewers understand the disease in terms that made sense to them.
If you deliver media interviews or speeches that contain similarly complex content, remember to look for an accessible analogy that makes your material immediately understandable to your audience. Once you put that building block in place, it will be easier for you to add complexity—slowly—until you get the audience to exactly where they need to be.
Editor’s note: Due to the Thanksgiving break, this will be my only post this week. Enjoy your holiday, and see you next week!
“For the first time since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the Army is shrinking.” So begins a recent New York Times article that profiles several officers who had planned on remaining with the Army for their entire careers but are being pushed out years earlier than expected due to budget cuts.
According to the Times, close to 1,200 captains and 550 majors will soon be out of work, with additional layoffs scheduled next year. And the choices about which officers will remain with the Army—and which will not—are raising some eyebrows:
“Many are being pushed out despite having good records. When the Army announced the impending officer cuts a year ago, officials said they would target officers with evidence of poor performance or misconduct.
But an internal Army briefing disclosed by a military website in September showed the majority of captains being forced out had no blemishes on their records. The briefing, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, also showed that officers who had joined the Army as enlisted soldiers, then endured the demanding process required to rise into the officer corps, were three times as likely as captains who graduated from West Point to be forced to retire.”
The officers’ stories are full of hardship. Some are receiving dramatically smaller pensions than they expected, others are flirting with bankruptcy, and many are feeling a sense of loss and betrayal. In response, the Army issued a statement that failed to match or acknowledge the emotion of these stories. Worse, it appeared to slight the officers who had been let go:
“Selections for separation are based on a soldier’s manner of performance relative to their peers while serving as a commissioned officer,” Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett, an Army spokesman, said in an email. “The boards retained those with the highest demonstrated levels of performance and the most potential for future contributions on active duty.”
Ouch. I’m sure the men and women who served were thrilled to see their work dismissed in such cold terms.
This statement suffers from the same problem as the one I highlighted last week regarding the medical center that treated Joan Rivers: It’s bereft of humanity.
In fairness, it’s entirely possible that Lt. Col. Garrett’s full statement contained more human language, but was cut from the story by the reporter. Even if that’s the case, this quote highlights the need to only send a reporter a short quote that can’t be easily edited down. As an example, this quote would have avoided the problem of sounding unnecessarily harsh:
“Dismissing an officer for budgetary reasons is always an excruciating decision. Although we made selections for separation based on a soldier’s manner of performance, many well-qualified and decorated officers are not being retained. We honor their service and are fully committed to easing their transitions to post-military life.”
Since this is the second time I’ve written about this topic in as many weeks, I’ll propose a new rule: When drafting a crisis statement, always remember that you’re just a person, talking to another person.
A grateful h/t to presentation coach Gary Genard, who tweets at @GaryGenard.
I often tweet about stories that don’t appear on the blog. Join me! I’m at @MrMediaTraining.
Brenda Tracy says she was raped 16 years ago by four men, two of whom were Oregon State University (OSU) football players. There was a lot of evidence to substantiate her claim—the men “implicated each other during interviews with police,” and Ms. Tracy “had a thorough rape examination”—but because she chose not to press charges, the four men never faced criminal prosecution.
For the first time since her assault in 1998, Ms. Tracy identified herself publicly last week. In a gripping article written by John Canzano in The Oregonian, she describes being brutally gang raped by the four men over a seven-hour period.
The OSU football coach in 1998, at the time of the incident, was Mike Riley. Back then, he “suspended two of the players for one game and was quoted as saying his players had made, ‘a bad choice.’” Ms. Tracy says that three-word phrase still “burns” her.
Here’s the twist in this case: Mike Riley is still the coach of Oregon State’s football team. But there’s at least some good news in this story. In contrast to other recent high-profile rape (or alleged rape) cases, Coach Riley and OSU’s president responded to the Oregonian report in exactly the right way.
Before proceeding with the rest of this post, let me make clear that the scope of this post includes only the response to last week’s Oregonian article—not Coach Riley’s or OSU’s handling of the case in 1998, which may well have been insufficient.
But Coach Riley was pitch perfect in his response on Friday, leaving the following comment in the Oregonian’s comment section:
And OSU president Edward J. Ray offered a lengthy statement worth reading in its entirety:
“I am sure that many of you have read the article just published on OregonLive and being published in three segments this week in The Oregonian regarding the horrific assault suffered by Brenda Tracy in 1998 at the hands of several men.
I learned the details regarding this assault on Friday. Apparently, statements were taken from Ms. Tracy and the suspects, two of whom were on the Oregon State University football team at the time.
We are told that law enforcement officials in 1998 were not able to bring criminal charges because Ms. Tracy did not wish to participate in a prosecution.
OSU cannot control the criminal justice system, but I have asked university staff to obtain the police reports for the case and to determine if there are any actions we can take now under OSU’s code of student conduct. There may be no formal course of action available to us but we must try. While legal minds could no doubt explain how it makes sense to have a statute of limitations for sexual assault crimes, I find that appalling. Hopefully, justice delayed is not justice entirely denied in this case. We are currently trying to get the facts regarding OSU’s handling of this matter in 1998, including what efforts were made then to reach out to Ms. Tracy to help her deal with the terrible physical and emotional harm she suffered. If a case of this nature was reported to the university today, OSU’s Office of Equity and Inclusion would work to stop the sexual misconduct, assist the survivor and prevent a recurrence.
Ms. Tracy’s journey has been simultaneously heart-breaking and inspiring because of her own capacity to reclaim her sense of self-worth and pursue her education so that she can help others through her work as a nurse.
There is no statute of limitations on compassion or basic human decency. I understand that Mike Riley, who was our football coach at the time, has offered to meet with Ms. Tracy and would like to have her speak with the football team if she wishes to do so. The immediate response from us to Ms. Tracy is to ask how we can help her address the effects of this violence. It is our hope that any role she is willing and interested in pursuing to help educate our community on the horrors of sexual assault by sharing her story could bring some healing.
This would be of great interest to us, but only if it is helpful to Ms. Tracy in continuing to deal with all that she has suffered.
We cannot undo this nightmare. I personally apologize to Ms. Tracy for any failure on our part in 1998 in not helping her through this terrible ordeal. This is a moment from which each of us can learn. But it is mostly a moment for us to help Ms. Tracy heal.”
Wow. Those statements are serious, infused with compassion, and completely victim focused. One wishes that all institutions involved in these types of cases would respond similarly. (That said, it’s worth noting that Mr. Ray’s statement doesn’t mention Coach Riley’s original handling of the case; he may have to address that part of the story if other reporters ask him about it, as I suspect they will.)
Of course, a good crisis communications statement or two doesn’t make up for Ms. Tracy’s 16 years of suffering in near-suicidal silence. But even now, doing the right thing still matters to Ms. Tracy:
“When I told Tracy about OSU’s reaction and Riley’s wish to think about having her speak to his team someday, she broke down. Of course, she’d love to be part of an educational program, not just for the football team but for any group interested in hearing her story.
‘Maybe that’s where this was supposed to go all along,’ she said.
Click here to instantly join our mailing list and receive the best of the blog twice each month.
Several women have accused Bill Cosby of rape and sexual misconduct over the past decade. But the accusations, which have received only sporadic media coverage in the past, came roaring back to the headlines this week after a fellow standup comedian called Cosby a rapist on stage.
To make matters worse for Cosby, a Twitter campaign he supported this week that intended to make him a “meme” backfired badly.
Although Cosby reportedly reached a financial settlement with at least one of his accusers, he has never been prosecuted. According to Mark Whitaker, a journalist who wrote Cosby’s biography, there have been “no definitive court findings, no independent witnesses.”
Nonetheless, the allegations are suddenly having a legacy-threatening impact on Cosby’s career. His scheduled appearances on The Queen Latifah Show and Late Night With David Letterman are off, and many media writers are wondering whether his forthcoming NBC sitcom will still make it to air. (Editor’s note: His NBC sitcom has now been canceled, his Netflix special has been called off, and reruns of “The Cosby Show” have been pulled from TV Land.)
Cosby appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition this morning to discuss an unrelated topic. When host Scott Simon asked him to comment on the allegations, Cosby said….nothing. (Simon had to tell the audience that Cosby was shaking his head). When Simon tried a second time, there was complete silence once again. When Simon tried a third time, still nothing.
Cosby’s silence doesn’t equal guilt. I always keep in mind former California Congressman Gary Condit who, in 2001, remained publicly silent for weeks about his role in the disappearance and murder of intern Chandra Levy. While the public took his quiet public stance as a sign of his guilt, he was later found to have no role in her disappearance.
But whether it’s fair or not (and to be clear, I believe it’s entirely possible that his numerous accusers are telling the truth), Cosby’s radio silence will likely be seen by many—I’d guess most—as a sign of his guilt. And although Cosby has maintained his innocence either directly or through his representatives in the past, he’s had nothing to say on this latest—and most threatening—wave of negative publicity.
Cosby’s strange silence on NPR guaranteed more publicity for the allegations against him than a banal response would have (e.g. “I’ve answered questions about this topic in the past, and I’m not going to help keep this story alive by commenting further.”)
All of this raises a question: If he was unprepared or unwilling to answer a question on a topic that would so obviously come up, why did he proceed with the interview? Why not stay out of the public eye until either the media coverage died down or he had something more substantive to say? Although I usually think that remaining silent during a swirling controversy is a bad idea, remaining silent during a national media interview is an even worse idea.
I was a teenager during The Cosby Show’s run. I loved the program. Now that I have a toddler son, I’ve often thought about buying the series when he’s a bit older and enjoying classic Cosby moments together: Dr. Huxtable taking Monopoly money from Theo; Rudy lip syncing to a Ray Charles classic; the high fives that follow the discovery that Theo is dyslexic.
But these allegations throw into question for me whether Cosby is the moral force I want to share with my son. My guess is that I’m not alone in those concerns. For that reason, and others that are far more important, my sense is that Cosby will need to address these allegations more directly soon—or risk losing further bookings, his forthcoming show, and his reputation.
UPDATE: NOVEMBER 16, 2014, 10:00 AM:
Bill Cosby just tweeted a statement from his attorney that reads:
“Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.
- John P. Schmitt, lawyer for Bill Cosby”
His refusal to speak will not quell this controversy. If anything, it will achieve the opposite, since it will leave an open, undefended playing field for his accusers to have their stories heard. If he’s guilty of these allegations, his silence might be better for his long-term reputation than an overt confession or unconvincing media interview. But if he’s innocent, his refusal to speak will cement for many, unfortunately, that the allegations are true.
UPDATE: NOVEMBER 21, 2014
I appeared on Washington’s WTOP radio to discuss this case. You can hear the audio here.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Yorkville Endoscopy—the New York clinic that performed the fatal procedure on Joan Rivers—committed a series of major mistakes while treating her, according to a determination released this week by the New York Department of Health and Human Services. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the violations include the following jaw-dropping lapses:
“Not obtaining the patient’s consent for a procedure, mistakes in administering the anesthesia Propofol, failing to take Rivers’ weight, allowing an unauthorized doctor to perform a procedure at the facility and violating the patient’s privacy by taking a cell phone photograph during surgery.”
In response to the new report, Yorkville Endoscopy released the following statement to The Hollywood Reporter and other news outlets:
“From the outset of the Aug. 28 incident described in the CMS Report, Yorkville has been fully cooperative and collaborative with all regulatory and accreditation agencies. In response to the statement of deficiencies, Yorkville immediately submitted and implemented a plan of correction that addressed all issues raised. The regulatory agencies are currently reviewing the corrective plan of action and have been in regular contact with Yorkville. In addition, the physicians involved in the direct care and treatment referenced in the report no longer practice or provide services at Yorkville. Yorkville will continue its commitment to complying with all standards and accreditation requirements. Yorkville has been and remains open and active and is fully accredited by an independent review organization. The staff and providers are focused on providing the highest quality and most advanced care possible to its patients.”
Their statement doesn’t convey even the barest amount of apology, express remorse, or say anything that makes me believe that they are patient-centric. Instead, it appears to be a self-interested statement intended to say as little as possible, limit legal damages, and convince regulators that they deserve to continue receiving Medicare money.
Yes, I understand that the practice has to be careful with impending litigation on the horizon, so it’s responsible for attorneys to play an important role in writing and vetting this statement (as they surely did). But does this statement really accomplish much? After reading such damning findings, I suspect most people would be outraged—her doctor took a selfie with Ms. Rivers as she was unconscious?!? Yorkville’s cold, carefully parsed statement doesn’t acknowledge that underlying emotion at all, making me wonder whether future potential patients would feel assured and safe enough to put their lives in Yorkville’s hands. I know I wouldn’t.
Then again, my guess is that Yorkville’s primary audience isn’t patients, but rather the regulators and accreditation agencies who will ultimately decide whether Medicare and other insurance patients can continue to receive coverage at their practice.
Personally, I would have pushed for a more human-sounding statement such as this one:
“Patients place their trust in us, and we have a sacred obligation to uphold it. There was a breach in that trust recently, which we find completely unacceptable and took immediate action to correct. The physicians involved in the direct care and treatment referenced in the report no longer practice or provide services at Yorkville.
Our sole focus is to make sure that every patient who walks through our doors knows they will be treated by expert physicians and cared for by professional healthcare workers. They should also know that the deficiencies that were identified by regulatory and accreditation agencies have been corrected.”
I know that the second line of that statement sounds like an admission of guilt. But other medical facilities, such as Johns Hopkins, have gone even further than I’m suggesting, offering affected patients a straightforward “I’m sorry.”
From my perspective, the facts seem rather self-evident here, meaning they would gain more from admitting the obvious in a quest to regain public trust than from fearing an increased payout by including such a line. (If Yorkville’s insurance carrier is preventing the clinic from making such a statement, it’s a good reminder to negotiate a policy that contains more flexibility for communications during a reputational crisis.)
If they weren’t willing to say more, should Yorkville Endoscopy have even released a statement at all? I’d say yes, if only because it prevented the media from saying the practice had “no comment,” which would have looked even more damning. Plus, I generally believe that some communication is better than no communication. But I sure wish they had left the generic legal “cover your ass” template behind and said something that inspired genuine confidence in their work instead.
Joan Rivers photo credit: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons
Many speakers like to type out their entire speeches.
It’s easy to imagine these presenters hunched over their laptops for days, a steady stream of caffeine serving as their only companions. Despite their sleep deprivation, their hard work ultimately results in carefully-edited, near-perfect speeches.
At least their scripts look perfect. But when the speakers read their words aloud for the first time during their presentations, they sound stiffer than a newly hired phone solicitor reading the script his boss just thrust into his hands. As a result, audience members can tell that the speaker is reading and might conclude that it would have been more efficient if the speaker had just distributed the text and let them read it for themselves.
These speakers are often dreadful to watch because they fail to remember that writing for the eye is different than writing for the ear.
Still, writing out a full speech does have certain advantages. For example, writing out a speech can help speakers create a tightly-focused organizational structure and discover a few ideas, themes, or cleverly-worded phrases that they otherwise wouldn’t have stumbled upon.
Therefore, I’m not against writing out your entire script, since doing so might help yield valuable fruit. I’m only against delivering speeches from prepared scripts (unless you’re the head of state or a similarly important figure, for whom a single bad word choice could provoke an international incident or cause markets to plummet).
If you must deliver a speech from a prepared text, here are four tips to consider:
1. Write Short Sentences
Long sentences may look good on paper, but they typically don’t sound natural when spoken aloud. Shorten them or separate longer lines into two or three sentences.
2. Use “Non-Reading” Delivery
When people read a speech, they tend to lose the vocal dynamics and non-verbal delivery elements they use during less formal presentations. So remember to change your pace, add a few pauses, speak more quickly in certain moments to add a dose of excitement and more slowly in others to allow the audience time to contemplate a key idea.
3. Maintain Eye Contact
Challenge yourself to maintain eye contact with the audience for at least 80 percent of your talk (you should eventually aim for closer to 100 percent, but reaching 80 percent is a laudable achievement for most speakers working off a script). Help yourself by writing short sentences and short words; doing so will allow you to look down, see the next line, look back up, and deliver the line directly to a person in your audience, an approach public speaking author James C. Humes refers to as the “See-Stop-Say” Technique.
4. Use This Better Alternative
I usually encourage clients who are delivering a speech from a script to leave a few holes in their texts. For example, speakers should be able to open their speeches for a minute or two without a formal text. If they’re welcoming people to an annual conference, they should be able to say, “Welcome, we’re so glad you’re here!” without any notes in front of them. Same goes for your close. In the middle of your speech, you might insert a hole for a personal anecdote, which will come across with greater authenticity if you share it “off the page.” Just practice your transition back into your prepared remarks once you’ve completed the anecdote.
Don’t miss a thing! Click here to instantly join our mailing list and receive our latest posts.