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5 Ways to Enhance Your Writing, Borrowed from Public Speakers

You’ve completed a year’s worth of grants, appeals, social media posts, and e-blasts. Treat yourself for your hard work right now! We need it. 

But if you’re working remotely because of COVID-19, you’re probably used to spending all day behind a screen. How can you write conversationally when you’ve gone days without face-to-face contact? Try borrowing some ideas from the art of speech writing! 

Public speaking principles are useful because they’re designed to hook audiences, ignite emotions, and pack meaning into a limited time frame. Even if you never step on stage to speak (in-person gatherings? What are those?), your writing will benefit from these principles. Below you'll find some core ideas, how they apply to nonprofit writing, and inspiration from skilled public speakers.

1. Keep it Simple and Structured

A famous maxim for public speaking is to “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Simplicity and structure are core to public speaking because it’s nearly impossible to process complex information by listening without a clear structure to follow. That’s why the Rule of Three is so popular.

Watch a skilled impromptu speaker and you’ll see this principle at work. They are able to prep a 5-minute long speech on the spot because they carefully structure their arguments. It looks like magic, but it’s actually the result of something much more boring: practicing writing outlines. 

IN NONPROFIT WRITING:

You probably have a lot to say, but you can’t dump all of it onto your audience like word vomit. Keep Simplicity & Structure in mind when writing. (“The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out.”) Streamlining your structure helps you make the most of your audience’s attention.

INSPIRATION FROM A SPEECH:

Watch late Apple CEO Steve Jobs deliver his famous Stanford University Commencement speech in 2005. This was one of the first speeches to go viral on YouTube. He set his audience up with an explicit, simple structure: “I’m just going to tell three stories today.” By using that magic number, 3, Jobs used a structure that was engaging and easy to follow. Just as Apple innovated through sleek, minimalist design, Jobs crafted a sleek, minimalist speech through a simple structure.

2. Make Them Feel It With Sensory Details

The mission-driven non-profit world often leans into the abstract. Big ideas, values, and data need to be brought down to earth, tying them to our day-to-day existence. Bob Ross speaking directly about life’s philosophy to the camera probably wouldn’t have been memorable. But he used specific details in each painting - like his famous happy little trees - to converse with the audience about his perspective on life.

IN NONPROFIT WRITING:

Data is like your friend who feels awkward at parties. If you don’t give it a proper introduction, it’ll be forgotten, standing in the corner, refilling its drink too much, and hanging out with the host’s cat. Use relatable similes, metaphors, and sensory language to make citations tangible. It might take some extra math, but your audience will grasp the vastness of a blue whale if it weighs as much as 12 school buses. Translate monetary amounts into specific ways donor’s dollars can be used. 

INSPIRATION FROM A SPEECH: 

Watch the first female astronaut, Sally Ride, give one of her most requested speeches: Reach for the Stars. Ride has a charming story about how she was recruited to NASA: she applied for the Stanford student newspaper. But rather than simply relay the information or set it up as a joke, she sets a scene: where she was sitting in the cafeteria, reading the newspaper. She shows and doesn’t tell, demonstrating how this seemingly mundane moment was actually a small first step, and giant leap for womankind.

3. Who’s This All About?

“A speech that’s not about people is just words.” That’s what master speechwriter Amélie Crosson-Gooderham says in her interview with the Eloquent Woman. That’s true about other types of writing as well. 

IN NONPROFIT WRITING:

It’s cliche by now to put a face on an issue. Advocates have shifted the conversation from that simple idea to avoiding white saviorism in nonprofit communication and the problematic nature of “giving voice to the voiceless”

How can you provide a platform for the people most directly impacted by an issue? For example, if your nonprofit focuses on education, where is the opportunity to amplify student voice? Yes, we cite white papers and thought leaders but the most credible argument for your impact comes from people directly served.  

INSPIRATION FROM A SPEECH:

Fred Rogers’ 1969 $20 million testimony before the Senate is a masterclass in credibility (transcript here) by focusing on who his work serves. Facing skepticism, Rogers establishes his own credibility by citing his six years of study in the field of child development early in the speech. He speaks candidly about his work, showing how each detail of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is designed to enhance child welfare. He prefaces his final song with, “That first line came straight from a child.” When Mister Rogers says he values children deeply, he’s not just paying lip service.

4. Say It Out Loud

This one’s great for getting out of your head and outside the box. You know how your writing reads, but how does it sound? Both impact the way your audience absorbs information. (A bonus to not being in the office: it’s easier to read out loud to yourself without drawing any stares.) 

IN NONPROFIT WRITING:

Read your writing out loud (necessary for all speechwriters, less intuitive for grant writing). Strengthen the vocabulary throughout your speech leading up to an emotional crescendo. In his book Word Hero, Jay Heinrichs calls “Sound Symbolism” a way to evoke emotion both on the page and aloud. The word “little” sounds itty bitty coming out of your mouth; “humongous” sounds broad. These words not only illustrate the concepts they describe by their shapes, but they also evoke emotion. “Mournful” sounds dejected; “cheery” sounds sunny. “Lovely” sounds beautiful, yet the synonym “pulchritudinous” sounds ugly. Write catastrophes, not bummers.

INSPIRATION FROM A SPEECH:

Climate change can be overwhelming and abstract. Who better to bring the idea down to earth than a poet?  In her address at the 2014 UN Climate Summit, poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner puts the most appealing human face of all on the issue: a little baby’s. She invokes emotion by both humanizing the topic and using sound symbolism to her advantage. “Sunrise of gummy smiles” as a metaphor is cute and charming like a baby, but also sounds soft and pleasing. The “lucid, sleepy lagoon lounging” sounds peaceful with the languid “l” sound. The enemy in her narrative, “backwater bullying of businesses with broken morals” sounds brutish. You don’t need to be a poet to borrow poetic devices for speechwriting.

5. Make Your Info Stick With a Story  

I know, I know. You’ve heard plenty about storytelling. There’s a whole cottage industry dedicated to helping people tell better stories. There’s just too much cognitive research about storytelling to ignore its power. Stories stick throughout centuries. Interestingly, recent research indicates that some facts are more persuasive on their own than contextualized with a story - so feel free to experiment and not feel like you need to tell every story at all times. 

IN NONPROFIT WRITING:

Storytelling can be used in almost any part of writing. Say you’re delivering a persuasive speech about a serious issue. A basic persuasive structure is Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. It includes: Get Attention, Establish the Need, Satisfy the Need, Visualize the Future, and Action/Actualization. You can apply stories throughout the sequence:

  • Get Attention: Start with the beginning of a remarkable story of a person who was affected by the issue, your Main Character.
  • Establish the Need: Dive deeper into the details of the Main Character’s story. Contextualize why and how they got there, and introduce any “Supporting Characters” now dealing with the same issue.
  • Satisfy the Need: Bring your audience back to the emotional climax of the Main Character’s predicament before introducing your solution to the issue.
  • Visualize the Future: Tell one of two stories: what happens to the Main Character if we maintain the status quo? What happens to the Main Character if your solution is implemented? Paint a vivid picture. This is inspiration.
  • Action/Actualization: Invite your audience to imagine themselves as characters in the story who are part of the solution and resolution of the story. Perhaps you can show the audience how easy it is to enact the solution by telling the story of one relatable person who has already contributed in some small way. This is simulation.

INSPIRATION FROM A SPEECH:

Certified superwoman and Nobel-Prize Winner Wangari Maathai became known as the “Tree Woman of Africa” for her work reforesting Kenya. The Green Belt Movement she co-founded has planted over 900,000 trees. The Movement emphasizes training one person at a time to plant one tree at a time. She used a fable about a hummingbird to illustrate the idea that one person’s action makes a difference in this speech:

Once a fire consumed a forest. All of the animals ran out of the forest to safety, watching the fire consume their home. All except one little hummingbird, who takes drop by drop of water in its mouth to put out the fire. The much bigger animals who could carry more water are too afraid to help, but the hummingbird bravely does what it can with what it has.

This story moved audiences all over the globe to join her movement. Maathai also shows that to tell a story, you don’t have to tell your story. Fables, legends, and other stories with universally recognized elements can be just as powerful as speaking directly from your own heart.

As in a speech, I will “tell you what I told you”. Principles used in speech writing, including simplicity & structure, sensory details, humanization, speaking your writing out loud, and storytelling can improve your nonprofit writing. 

Are you looking for inspiration? Virtual college and high school speech and debate tournaments will start up next semester and schools will be looking for judges! Schools in our area have some of the most skilled young public speakers in the nation. 

In the meantime, keep learning with these speech writing resources: 


Rebecca Froehlich | MN Urban Debate League


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