Printed 2014/04/24 10:36PM

Tip on Speaking (and Writing) Well – The Key Idea


Cross-posted from the Goal Keeping DBA blog:

In the September 2010 issue of Toastmaster magazine there’s a great article by Chris Witt (blog) entitled Not All Ideas Are Created Equal. Here is the gist of what it has to say with my own take on the points Mr. Witt has made:

Focus on one idea

If you have more ideas, great! Save them for another speech (or blog post/article). Focus on the one idea you want to communicate to your audience. You want to ensure your audience gets your idea. And you want it to be as compelling as possible. If you’re writing on a technical topic, make sure what you’re trying to get across focuses on that single topic.

This is a problem I’ve struggled with in the past. I want to communicate too many things. It’s hard enough to get one idea across. So just focus on getting that one idea to your audience.

Make that idea clear

This should be obvious, but a lot of us miss this point. If you get up there and talk or if you write and there’s no clarity, then your idea doesn’t come across. That defeats the whole purpose of what you’re striving to do. So you need to make sure that you get the idea across clearly. In order to do that you must first be sure that you are clear on what that idea is. If it’s not clear to you, it’s not going to be clear to your audience.

When communicating that idea, use clear, plain language. Hiding behind jargon runs counter to your purpose. We’ve all joked about “buzzword bingo” and that’s something you want to avoid. Dr. Richard Feynman was renowned not only for his expertise in physics, but also for his ability to take complex topics and explain them in a way ordinary people could understand. This is what is to be aimed for: the clear communication of the idea. Remember your audience and choose your words careful to reach them.

Organize what you have to say

It’s easy to just sit down and start writing. Grab a dictionary and write one word. Flip a few pages and write another word. Flip a few more and another. There, you’ve sat down and you’ve started writing, right? Not at all. All you’ve done is copy a few words out of the dictionary and they probably make no sense together.

You want to make sure that as you communicate your idea, that you aren’t doing the same thing, only you are using phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Make sure your idea is developed in an orderly way. Ensure the audience can follow along and that your building on your idea throughout. Tangents and “rabbit trails” should be avoided. One of the things I hate to see in writing is a sidebar that is only loosely related to the topic being covered. Yes, I’ve been guilty of doing this in my own writing and it makes me cringe when I see my own failings in print. Stay on topic, ensure it’s organized, and work to develop your idea logically.

Back it up

If you are working on an idea and not a topic like, “How do I change a flat tire,” then you want to make sure that as you present the idea, you give evidence supporting it. For instance, when I wrote an essay back in the 9th grade against the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty, I did so having done an extensive amount of research. The INF arsenal gave us punch even in a sudden invasion of West Germany without having to launch ICBMs from US soil. It seemed really foolish to get rid of this defensive measure. So I spent the paper discussing force distribution in Europe, ranges and numbers of the weapon systems and the situations where we would employ them, and the lack of anything similar to provide equivalent capabilities. All of this went to support my position that we should not sign the INF treaty.

You need to do the same sort of thing with your idea. As you develop it, you need to provide facts and reasons why your idea is sound. You need to give your audience reason to agree with your idea. Here you are looking for credible, verifiable sources. Now those facts and reasons don’t have to be as hard and fast as what I used in my position paper. They could be stories and anecdotes. One of the things Al Gore tried to use in his failed presidential campaign was anecdotal stories. Why was this one of his strategies? Stories people can identify with are seen as evidence for your idea. This strategy has worked in the past. And it works now. We typically love good stories. Now what you use is up to you. Make sure it fits the idea you’re trying to convey and the audience you’re trying to reach. If you’re trying to defend a graduate dissertation, stories won’t cut it. If you’re trying to talk to a bunch of children, detailed facts with pie charts and other business type notes won’t either.

Remember that these need to be verifiable. One of the things that burned Gore was that as the media started to check into his stories, they were able to find and prove that at least some of them were either stretched greatly or flat-out made up. As a result, Gore’s strategy backfired, especially as Bush found ways to convey his ideas to his audience, the American people, better than his opponent.

You better be interested in your idea

I remember my senior year at The Citadel I was given a presentation on research done by another physics major. I did the best that I could and it was a worthy topic that I understood, but I don’t feel that I did a very good job. Why not? Because it wasn’t research I was interested in. I agreed to give it because my fellow physics major had a conflict and couldn’t present the paper he had worked on.

If you are interested and passionate about your idea, it will show. One of the things that characterizes the TED talks is that the speakers are very passionate about their ideas. That’s what makes most of the presentations compelling. If you aren’t interested in your idea, folks will begin to sense it. And then they will ask, “If he doesn’t care, why should I?” Then it doesn’t matter how good an idea is, you’ve lost them. Be interested in it and find a way to convey that interest. What about the idea appeals to you? What makes it special to you? Bring that out.

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