What makes a speech’s call to action powerful? A theory of change.

Inspiring speeches don’t just persuade people of a point of view; they urge the audience to action, and show them how that action will produce meaningful progress toward a better world.

Here’s an example. After I tweeted this column by the Vancouver Sun’s Daphne Bramham (“We need citizens, not just taxpayers and bookkeepers“), Ryan Merkley pointed me to this 2011 TEDx talk by former Toronto mayor David Miller.

Miller makes a compelling case for reclaiming the language of “citizen” over “taxpayer”, and he could have ended there — as a lot of TEDx talks do.

But then he asks his audience to do something: to challenge every media reference to “taxpayers” with a letter or email. He sets out a theory of change: that once enough people do that, reporters and commentators — and eventually politicians — will begin changing their language as well. And that, in turn, will help to shift the political discussion so that it focuses less on keeping taxes low, and more on the common good.

He isn’t asking his audience to take to the streets, or fundamentally alter their lives. But he isn’t just asking them to take a purely symbolic step, either. By seamlessly connecting his call to action to his argument, through a clear and coherent theory of change, Miller leaves his audience inspired and ready to do something they believe will improve their community.

Which is a pretty big part of citizenship.

Didn’t like the State of the Union? Make your own!

More and more interconnected world, pass the new economy work for them. And found a way that benefits all of its people. Further extending it as due to the several classes, but it is noteworthy that the rights, but the foundation for such a movement as the necessity of fighting the war; or a governor behaves improperly or unwisely, the protection and forbearance among capitalists, farmers, and enables them to be unconstitutional, often inconsistent with power to enter into contracts for the way in which it is possible.
Is supported by a steady decline in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. Today the brave people of Afghanistan are showing that resolve. Here at home while protecting our country. Enabling a million children learning what they were building a 21st century, protecting California’s classrooms by this country to love and guidance.

As created by the State of the Union Machine (courtesy of the Sunlight Foundation).

Looking at it on the page, it’s gibberish. But try reading it aloud, in sonorous, weighty tones. Drop your voice almost to a hoarse whisper a few times.

And then roll your own: the SOTU machine lets you weight different presidents to get more or less of the verbiage from their speeches.

It’s a bit of fun, but there really is a more serious side to this. A SOTU speech is damn difficult.

I’ve had a taste of that difficulty myself, having written several throne and budget speeches. None got anything like the kind of audience and scrutiny Obama’s got, but the challenges are similar.

You need to capture the sense of occasion, speak to the public as well as the pundits and pols, mollify (if not actually please) a staggering range of stakeholders, and maybe even advance your own agenda… all while sticking to a consistent theme.

The risk of winding up with a grocery list is high (“Trout subsidies? What the hell are trout subsidies? And why do I have to talk about them in a speech about energy independence?”), as is the possibility of a ponderous, gassy collection of vague generalities.

And as you go through draft after draft, sleep-deprived night after sleep-deprived night, the danger of creating something that reads like it came from a verbal Moulinex increases exponentially.

So while the SOTU Machine is a fun toy, maybe it’s also a warning to speechwriters: never let go of the central thread.

You can run (on at the mouth), but you can’t hide

More than 50 lies, half-truths, and instances of disingenuous spin. Rob Ford’s speech lasted 16 minutes, therefore Rob Ford took liberties with reality, on average, three times per minute. And that was in a speech where nobody asked him about drugs, alcohol, or criminal behaviour.

via Torontoist

One crucial thing speechwriters need to remember: the days of the one-way speech from the podium are over. And even if you’re betting that mainstream media are stretched too thin to check what you’re saying, there may well be a blogger in the audience with the resources to follow through.

In this case, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s speech gets a thorough point-by-point refutation (not just a rebuttal) from two bloggers at Torontoist. If you needed a reminder to avoid the temptation to fudge the truth for the sake of a good line, here it is.

Nancy Duarte’s Resonate is free on iBooks

iTunes - Books - Resonate by Nancy Duarte

This is worth a heartfelt OMG: Nancy Duarte’s Resonate is now available as a free download from iBooks. You need an iPad or a Mac to use this version, but it has all sorts of interactive goodness and bonus material, including lots of video.

I’ve gone on about Resonate at length before, but to recap: if you write or deliver speeches and presentations, it’s absolutely invaluable. (And if you don’t have an iPad or Mac, you can always buy it minus the supplementary content.)

Go get it!

Resonate by Nancy Duarte

Your client’s giving a major speech. What would be in the trailer?

From You’re Going to Want to Watch This Speech | The White House:

I just finished reading the draft of a speech the President plans to deliver on Wednesday, and I want to explain why it’s one worth checking out.

[…] It’s a vision he carried through his first campaign in 2008, it’s a vision he carried through speeches like the one he gave at Georgetown University shortly after taking office that imagined a new foundation for our economy and one in Osawatomie, Kansas on economic inequality in 2011 — and it’s a vision he carried through his last campaign in 2012.Watch that history here and see why this moment is so important.

This marks a first, at least for me: a presidential speech that has an actual trailer. (If you’ve seen anything similar, do share!)

But it’s a logical way to create some buzz, assemble an online audience and place the speech in the context of a broader narrative. I don’t imagine this is the last trailer we’ll see for a major speech.

And even if it never sees the light of day, imagining a trailer for your client’s next big speech isn’t a bad way to focus yourself.

In fact, go all-out, and imagine the blockbuster version. You’ll deal with a lot of the same questions a movie studio has to when they market a film: What is your audience expecting? What will move them? What will bring the sharp intakes of breath? And what will that one scene be that everyone talks about in the lineup to get into your movie?

Why Jon Favreau looked so tired the morning of Sept. 10, 2009

President Obama reviews a speech with Jon Favreau

President Barack Obama and Jon Favreau, head speechwriter, edit a speech on health care in the Oval Office, Sept. 9, 2009, in preparation for the president’s address to a joint session of Congress. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza – via Flickr)

Presidential communications are seamless, hermetic; they betray no sign they were ever anything other than fully polished.

Usually.

But now and then, we get a glimpse like this, and we get a hint of the furious activity going on just below the surface: the endless cycles of revision and comment that ultimately turn out the glowing words scrolling up a teleprompter screen. In this case, it looks like a long night is in the cards for Jon Favreau.

Maybe it won’t be that bad. There have been times when I would have killed to have a client whose handwriting was as meticulous as Obama’s looks in this photo. If his directions are as clear as his penmanship, Mr. Favreau’s an even luckier man than I’d thought.

Catch Colin Moorhouse’s speechwriting workshop – in person or online

I’ve known Colin Moorhouse for several years now, mostly as a disembodied (phone, social media and email) presence — but a thoughtful, experienced and generous one.

Possibly the leading speechwriting trainer out there (with two decades under his belt!), he has a lot of insight and knowledge to share. And he’s done just that for countless students through his intensive annual two-day workshop at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University.

You can also take Colin’s course online, running six weeks but with the same hands-on practical assignments, individual attention and focus on the business as well as the craft of speechwriting.

Both workshops start in March, but with Colin’s reputation, I’d sign up now. The on-site workshop takes place all day Friday March 1 and March 8 at SFU’s downtown campus. And the online course begins on March 15, with an early-bird discount available now.

Next time you’re getting down on yourself about how long it takes you to write… 

…consider how long it takes Jerry Seinfeld to write a joke.

Of course, consider as well the attention to craft and detail – particularly timing – that he devotes to the process. Chances are, many speechwriting clients aren’t so vested in the process that they’ll be willing to give you that kind of running room… not for the whole speech, anyway.

But seeing Seinfeld describe his process is a healthy reminder that you can do yourself and your client a lot of good by giving yourself a lot of space to work on the most critical moments of a speech, and to make them as powerful and memorable as you can.

Resolution: quote more women

So often, when I’m reaching for a stirring quotation, I wind up with something a man said. (Or, in the case of Gandhi, didn’t say.) You may find the same thing.

If so, and you’d like to redress that imbalance a little, bookmark The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women’s Speeches. It’s a collection of speeches by prominent women, from Sojourner Truth to Ursula K. Le Guin, and from Aung Sun Suu Kyi to Lady Gaga. There are 78 so far, with more added regularly.

What you can learn from Bill Clinton, speechwriter

One of the most valuable things you can get back from a client after they deliver a speech you’ve written is the marked-up text – the changes they’ve made from what you wrote. You may not agree with every edit, but they’re very clear cues to what your client feels comfortable saying.

Two inches of hairline ago, when I was writing for Audrey McLaughlin, she was scrupulous about sending me her edits after a speech. Her tool of choice was a black Sharpie… which, I’d later learn from Michael Waldman‘s POTUS Speaks, was also Bill Clinton‘s. As president, Clinton was notorious for the number of drafts his speeches would go through, all of them coming back from the Oval Office densely edited by hand. He’d often take that process right down to the last minute.

Apparently, some things never change, and Bill Clinton’s last-minute editing proclivities are among them.

The Atlantic Wire‘s Dashiell Bennett has done an incredible service to speechwriters everywhere, taking the advance written copy of the speech Bill Clinton gave last week at the Democratic National Convention, and painstakingly marking it up with the former president’s insertions (italic) and deletions (red, strikethrough).

Now, there’s a reason for this. It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, Why? because discrimination, poverty poverty, discrimination and ignorance restrict growth, When you stifle human potential, when you don’t invest in new ideas, it doesn’t just cut off the people who are affected; it hurts us all. We know that while investments in education, and infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase it growthcreating more They increase good jobs and they create new wealth for all the rest of us.

(see What Bill Clinton Wrote vs. What Bill Clinton Said – Politics – The Atlantic Wire)

This is the kind of thing we rarely get to see. Of course, not all of these changes were written into the text that scrolled across his teleprompter; more than a few were the kinds of things a practised speaker may do on the fly. (I’ll bet that’s the case with a lot of those “Now”s at the beginning of sentences.)

But look at how often he edits to break up a long sentence, or turn a weak description into a superlative, or reinforce a parallel structure, or create a smoother transition (“Now, there’s a reason for this”), or signal a key point (“And so here’s what I want to say to you”).

For any of us who want to improve our craft, Bill Clinton just gave us a master class, courtesy of Dashiell Bennett. Many thanks to them both.