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Speech Writing and The Ability To Tell A Story
Jeff Porro is a speechwriter at Porro Associates LLC. His unique combination of talent and experience helps executives use the spoken word to engage their most important audiences — funders, clients, investors, employees, the press and public.
Can you tell us a little about your journey to becoming a speechwriter?
In the 1990s I was working as an editor for a magazine whose owners decided the only way to survive was to let almost all of the staff go. I decided to turn this sudden lack of a job into an opportunity, by launching a freelance career. At first, I took just about every assignment you could imagine, but over time I focused on what I call “promotional writing,” which included a few speeches, but many brochures, annual reports, etc. As the years went by I got a little bored. So I worked with an executive coach to “discover my passion.” It turned out to be speechwriting. I love speechwriting because it requires the ability to tell stories, provide vital information, understand audiences, and convey a personality through words. That last aspect ties into my “secret life” as a screenwriter.
When should leaders and executives consider hiring a professional writer like yourself?
Whenever executives find they are not engaging their key audiences — inspiring them, moving them to action, persuading them — it’s time to hire a pro.
What qualities do the executives and leaders you’ve worked with share?
My best clients are, first and foremost, brave and humble enough to realize they need to use the spoken word more effectively. In addition, they are willing to share something personal (NOT confessional), and they realize how important it is to communicate through stories.
Who has been one of the most inspiring/interesting/exciting leaders to write for?
One of the most inspiring has been Anne Goddard, CEO of ChildFund International. In addition to the qualities I mentioned above, she and her organization do great, good work and she has a terrific sense of humor.
How important is the ability to speak well to leadership?
It is critically important. It’s a strange paradox of our times, when new forms of communication seem to pop up every week, that one of the oldest forms of communication — one person speaking to a group of others — is more important than ever. People want to see and hear their leaders in action.
As one of my clients, a CEO and high tech pioneer, put it: “It’s remarkable. If you have two growth companies headed by equally smart guys, where one can deliver an enthusiastic speech, lay out the mission of the company and encourage people to work smarter and harder and the other can’t … it makes a world of difference to the success of the company.”
What is the anatomy of a great speech?
Lee Iacocca once said that if you just want to convey information, put a notice on a bulletin board. But a speech should be like a novel. To me that means a speech should have drama, it should have heart, and above all it should tell a story.
Where should someone start when tackling writing a speech?
If you’re writing for a client, your first goal should be to get to know that client well enough that you can convey his or her personality through a speech. A generic speech is a bad speech. Next, you should work closely with the executive and the communications team to understand what specific messages they want to convey. And finally, a speechwriter absolutely must learn as much about the intended audience as possible. If you want a speech to resonate with listeners, you must know who they are,what they are thinking about and…what is keeping them up at night.
What advice do you find yourself repeating to leaders over and over when it comes to delivering a speech?
Use fewer statistics and tell more stories.