Today’s audiences want more than speeches packed with scintillating soundbites, zingers and wow moments. What they want in these uncertain times are simplicity, security and solutions.
Ahead of his “Speechwriting and Storytelling for Stability: How to Deliver Simple Answers in Unsettled Times” session at Ragan’s Feb. 21 Public Affairs & Speechwriting Virtual Conference, Ragan Consulting Group consultant Nick Lanyi shares how to deliver hope over hype:
- Make emotional connections to build trust. “Many surveys have shown that trust in institutions has declined sharply,” says Lanyi. “Whether due to political polarization, media fragmentation or dislocations like the COVID pandemic, people are less likely to believe what they hear from authority figures they used to trust.”
Lanyi believes executive comms can establish and maintain trust by making an authentic emotional connection with audiences. Here’s how:
- Eschew jargon and humanize ideas. “Speak with a voice that sounds like a real person instead of a corporate jargon-bot or cliche machine,” advises Lanyi. “Instead, take abstract concepts and humanize them, focusing on real people doing concrete things in the physical world.”
For example, don’t say, “We’ll continue to leverage our competitive edge to achieve industry-leading margin gains.” Instead, try something like, “We’ll keep working together to create the best products for our customers so we can all enjoy another good year together.”
- Use specifics and illustrate with real people. “The more specific you can get, the more memorable your points will be,” Lanyi says.
For example, don’t just say you’re helping customers get their deliveries faster. Instead, talk about how John in Poughkeepsie worked with the engineering team in Scranton to figure out a faster way for customers to get their deliveries.
Even that’s not enough. “Also try to spark emotions in your audience by talking about how you felt when you found out about their hard work,” he advises.
- Tell stories that provide solutions. “Political speeches use this technique all the time,” Lanyi continues. “It’s all about finding an ‘ordinary citizen’ facing a problem that the politician’s policies promise to address.”
This strategy works because telling a story about an ordinary person facing challenges encourages the audience to feel an emotional connection to the person and want to solve their problem.
“It also helps the audience feel favorably to the politician who feels the same way and has a plan to provide the solution,” says Lanyi.
- Dare to get personal—and never fake it. Trust stems from authenticity and that results from truly connecting to the audience—not just “playing a part.”
“Compelling leaders share their successes, motivations and dreams to connect with audiences emotionally,” Lanyi says. “But they also share their challenges.”
And don’t ever fake it, he warns. “Instead, find something real to talk about—even if it makes you feel vulnerable — and figure out how to connect it to your organization’s work, goals and vision.”
For example, President Lyndon B. Johnson wasn’t known as an inspirational speaker. But his most effective speech, a week after civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday in Selma, made strong use of a personal anecdote. After arguing for passage of the Voting Rights Act in abstract terms — by appealing to America’s founding principles and the fundamental importance of voting in a democracy—he talked about his own experience with a minority community:
My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.
Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.
I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.
But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret: I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.
2. Study successful stories and the anatomy of personal anecdotes. “Storytelling is an art and a science that you can master by studying what works for others,” Lanyi says. “And it doesn’t have to be a speech — it can simply be a personal story you hear over dinner.”
According to Lanyi, a compelling personal anecdote usually includes:
- Hero or heroine: “This is usually a human being who faces a set of obstacles on the way toward reaching a goal,” he says.
- Worthy goal: “The goal can be lofty or commonplace,” he continues. “For example, it can be curing a disease — or it can be as simple as paying the bills.
- Vivid details: An anecdote also needs to paint a picture. For example, “Sprinkle in a few details so the audience can imagine our heroine sitting at her kitchen table late at night, deciding which bills to pay and which to put off,” he says.
- Emotional resonance: And finally, there also has to be some emotion involved so the audience can empathize with your hero or heroine. For example, don’t just show our heroine at the table. Instead, tell us if she’s crying with sadness, has her head in her hands in despair or is shaking with anxiety.
“Research has shown that people are more likely to remember information when it’s conveyed in a story with these elements,” Lanyi explains. “They’re also more likely to take action if the speaker appeals to their emotions rather than only their reason.”
3. Be an avid reader—and think like a reporter. “The best speechwriters and orators are students of story,” according to Lanyi. “They’re constantly studying what works in the press, what they’re watching on TV and what’s happening in the world around them.”
His advice: “When making policy arguments, for example, go beyond rational talking points and find stories about real people. In-depth reporting that does this can be found in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, The Atlantic and other high-quality journalism outlets. Use those for actual examples—make sure to credit the source—or for inspiration in how to weave ‘real people’ storytelling into a narrative.”
Lanyi adds that you can also use AI tools like ChatGPT to research examples.
“Just be sure to double-check all sources to make sure they’re authentic,” he advises. “And ask around—if you have colleagues, partners or allies, ask them for stories about real people that you can use.”
Join Nick Lanyi, Michael Ricci (speechwriter for former U.S. House of Representatives Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan) and moderator Brian Pittman at Ragan’s Feb. 21 Public Affairs & Speechwriting Virtual Conference. They’ll speak alongside execs from PwC, PNC, the City of Portland, GWU, Aerospace Corp., U.S. General Services Administration and more.