Category Archives: Speechwriting

Why creativity gets squashed like a bug

Oh, everybody says they want something new and creative. But as this article from Slate shows, even places that are supposed by be hotbeds of artistic and creative genius, like magazines and ad agencies, are often machines built to squash the life out anybody who dares think outside the box.

Now, that's creative. I salute you, random dad.

Now, that’s creative. I salute you, random dad.

You see this in so many places.

Newspapers, which I adore, all did the same thing in reaction to the Series of Tubes: “Hey, let’s not let this train pass us by. How about we innovate by doing what every other newspaper is doing. We’ll put all our stories on this Interwebs for free, then money will pour through the windows from all the banner ads.”

They didn’t question the fact that other papers doing this were bleeding more money than Kim Kardashian on a 12-hour shopping spree.

All these newspapers and magazines did the same thing everybody else was doing. But expected different results.

People who thought outside the box, who said (a) make people subscribe to the paper to read it online or (b) don’t put it online at all, because then people won’t subscribe and advertisers won’t advertise and America will lay off 15,000 journalists, well those people got ridiculed as crazy. They weren’t hailed as creative prophets, avoiding doom. They were seen as nuts and the people in charge ignored them.

PETA and the creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams take a different approach. Instead of doing the safe thing, and what everybody else is doing, the guerrillas at PETA and this random nerdy looking man who worked at banks figured out you can’t plan on hitting a grand slam on your only at bat. You can’t even count on hitting a single, or getting the baseball over the plate.

On paper, getting the gall over the plate looks easy.

On paper, getting the gall over the plate looks easy.

Successful creative types are idea hamsters who try dozens, or hundreds, of different things. Because you can’t predict what will be a world-smashing success, and you certainly won’t somehow break through while doing the same thing that 185,892 other people and businesses are doing.

Scott Adams didn’t have a master plan to become a syndicated cartoonist. In his books, he writes about having dozens of long-shot ideas, and that for somebody who couldn’t draw when he started out, being a cartoonist wasn’t exactly a sure thing. He kept swinging for grand slams and kept missing until Dilbert took off.

PETA doesn’t have the bazillion-dollar advertising and marketing budget of corporations like Coke and Ford, or even non-profits trying to cure cancer and such. PETA gets all their publicity from free ink and airtime. Do they guilt magazines, newspapers and blogs into covering their cause? No. They try dozens and dozens of wild, creative long-shot ideas, most of which fail spectacularly. Why? Because the one idea that takes off can get them free press around the world.

I wrote a series of posts about PETA and publicity stunts for about.com, back when The New York Times owned that blog. (Related: I can say that, as a journalist, I cashed checks every month from the NYT, then got fired, though technically all of the contributing writers got axed, so it’s not as romantic as going on strike and getting replaced by the staff of the Lower Kentucky Valley Register, then walking into the editors office and handing in your resignation via a punch to the nose, which every journalist does dream about at one time. I had fun, and they were kind to me, and I learned many things by writing them down.)

Here’s one of those posts showing how PETA makes it happen.

Social media is the other big area where you FEEL like you’re being creative and different, when actually, you’re doing the same thing, oh, about 1 billion other people hooked up to the Series of Tubes are trying to do. Except you’re expecting a radically different result. While that may be magical thinking, it is conventional, safe and boring–not creative.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller (FREEDOM, ALASKA) that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

 

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Filed under Fiction, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Speechwriting, Thrillers and mysteries

Mixed Writing Arts is to writing as MMA is to fighting

Since the dawn of time, writers have spent their lives toiling in their own secret tribes and guilds, each clan claiming to have mastered the One True Art.

  • Copywriters swore their kung fu was far more powerful than that sissy screenwriting nonsense, because if you can’t sell tickets to a movie, the movie doesn’t get made.
  • Working journalists cranking out two stories a day scoffed at poets spending all week on five hippie lines about trees and clouds, while poets saw the mass-production lines of the Priests of the Inverted Pyramid as lacking any sort of soul or art.
  • Romance authors gathered in huge, organized conferences while mystery novelists gathered in small secret groups to put a dent in the global bourbon supply while trading secrets and lies.
  • Speechwriters clutched their tomes with 2,000-plus years of wisdom from Plato, Aristotle, Burke and countless other giants, who were inventing rhetoric and drama and comedy long before Syd Field arrived in Hollywood and Blake Snyder started saving cats.

To me, with a foot in all of these worlds, it felt false.

I got started in journalism and speech, my sister is a screenwriter and I have a great literary agent (Jill Marr!) after writing a novel that won some award.

It hit me, again and again, that I got better as a writer not when focusing like crazy on one thing, but by being exposed to other aspects that often would never have entered my mind as an option. Like hanging out with romance authors and editors, who have made me 100-times stronger as a writer. NOBODY COULD HAVE PREDICTED THAT.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: There is no one supreme writing art.
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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, 6 Friendly Friday, Fiction, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Speechwriting, Thrillers and mysteries

Watch this rare and beautiful graduation speech – DO IT NOW

Most graduation / commencement speeches put the B in Boring and fall into three categories: (1) standard “go change the world!” blah-blah you’ve heard 20 times before, (2) people trying to be very Deep, and Meaningful, but are mostly Confusing as they push their personal pet thing and (3) speakers trying to be funny when they have no experience or business being funny, ever, if their life depended upon it.

This man avoids all of those pitfalls.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s actually funny, and that he used to write speeches for some woman named Hillary and some dude named Barack.

For the actual words, or as many as exist on the Series of Tubes, here’s a link to the main body of text from the speech in The Atlantic.

Also: We need a similar magazine on the West Coast full of such smart things about literature and politics and life. I say we call it The Pacific.

Also-also: Hat tip to my speechwriter buddy Jen Waldref (on the Twitter: @olywordsmith) for sending this my way. Jen, you rock.

Also-cubed: If you know of an epically bad graduation speech, I’d love to see the text or YouTube clip.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.

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Filed under 7 Media Strategy Saturday, Speechwriting

Top 10 Myths of Journalism School

Oh, if I could go back in time, and whisper in the ear of my younger self during journalism school.

Not that I was busy screwing it up. Editor-in-chief of my college newspaper, graduated No. 1 in my class, won a bunch of awards, blah-blah-blah. (Related: Who is this Guy?)

But the traditional things that most journalism students think they SHOULD be doing — well, often those are seven separate kinds of wrong.

And there are other things Serious Journalism Majors scoff at, things that you actually should not only embrace, but hug tightly to your bosom.

So here we go with the Top 10 Myths of Journalism School.

Myth No. 10: Hard news is the only true love of a Serious Journalism Major

Sure, unfiltered Marlboros and Jim Beam come close. But nothing beats a scoop about an amazing scandal. You laugh at people trying to make the words flow for their feature story on dumpster divers, a story packed with all these photos, which are for nancypants who don’t have the stones to write more words.

Here’s the truth: hard news is all about news gathering and using the inverted pyramid, which is a horrible structure for any sort of writing and needs to be taken behind the barn and shot.

Hard news is worthy, and does the public a great service. Yet if all you do is hard news, you won’t truly learn journalism — or how to write.

Related posts:

Myth No. 9: Journalism school will teach you how to write

Once you get that pigskin from j-school, and land your first journalism  gig — at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times – you’ll go home after 12 hours of banging on the keyboard to stay up past midnight, banging on the keyboard some more while smoking Gallouise Blondes and drinking cheap whiskey sours as you write (a) the next Great American Novel, (b) a Broadway play involving a debutant who falls in love with a struggling young reporter or (c) a Hollywood screenplay about a vast government conspiracy unraveled by an intrepid young intern at CBS.

This will be a lot of fun, and you’ll remember this as being the Best Thing Ever until you’ve been doing it for seven months and turning every draft of your extra-curricular writerly fun into three-point attempts. Also, you will miss this thing we call “sleep” and these other things we call “money in the checking account” and “a social life that does not involve typing on a keyboard chatting with a person who may, or may not, actually exist.”

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Journalism, publicity and scandals, Old Media, which is still Big and Strong, Speechwriting, The Twitter, the Book of Face and the Series of Tubes

Writers: Cross-training is essential

Just like “playing professional football” isn’t one solitary skill, but a set of separate skills, you don’t study and practice “writing.”

There are dozens of separate skills involved.

  • Structure and storytelling, which is done best by the screenwriting peoples of Hollywood
  • Hooks and headlines (which you learn from ink-stained journalists and smooth-talking copywriters)
  • Taglines (Hollywood) and pitches (publicity peoples)
  • Speeches, opeds and persuasive writing (the rarely seen speechwriter, often riding fleet unicorns while fleeing from trolls)
  • Small-bore editing (grammar, copy editing and all that)
  • Dialogue (playwrights and novelists)
  • Big-bore editing (destroying a piece with your wicked red pen, then stitching it back together: better, faster, stronger)
  • Design and layout (book designers, cover artists, photographers, web designers)
  • The use and abuse of photos and imagery (photographers, journalists, photo-journalists
  • Publicity, sales and marketing

It’s a lot like the 53-whatever guys who play on a football team. Want to learn how to kick a field goal? Don’t ask the quarterback – bribe the kickers after teasing them about how clean their unis always are.

Need to become a better tackler? Talk to the linebackers. Want to run faster? Work out with the wide receivers and cornerbacks.

Because if you don’t cross-train, you’ll wind up looking silly. Like this.

Same thing with MMA fighters. They’re so well-rounded now, mixing striking with wrestling and ju-jitsu. Nobody who fights for money would think of spending all their time on one skill while ignoring the others, because they would get crushed into powder … and no longer pay the bills as a professional fighter. Delivering pizzas, maybe. Fighting, no. Unlike the bad old days of boxing, there isn’t a market for tomato cans that up-and-coming fighters match up with to pump up their record.

As a writer, I’ve learned the most from cross-training. Journalism and speechwriting are completely different, just like writing screenplays happens on a different planet from writing novels.

You can’t learn the other things while you play around in your favorite sandbox — but the skills you learn from hanging out in other writerly sandboxes has gargantuan payoffs.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Red Pen of Doom, Speechwriting

Build your own Writing Monster (Part 2 of Why critique groups MUST DIE)

Conventional wisdom is conventionally wrong.

Nowhere is this more true than in the fields of writing, social media and publicity — three lands where tradition and mythology rule the day.

Those who haven’t read these posts should start here, so they don’t get all Confused, because this is really Part 2 of Why critique groups MUST DIE.

So: if people listen to this silly blog and (a) stop trying to use Twitter to sell books and (b) go all Michael Bay as they blow up old, obsolete critique groups, what should they do instead?

Get a team. Build your own Writing Monster.

Hopefully, better than one of these.

Now, this is the opposite of a critique group, which is typically people who live in the same area, have the same rough skill level and do essentially the same thing, whether it’s writing romances about Men in Kilts, epic fantasies about elves with lightsabers riding dragons or dark mysteries about haunted detectives who are allergic to razors and brush their teeth with bourbon.

That’s not a team. Those are your buddies, your clones.

Successful authors, actors, pro athletes and other public figures have a team full of world-class specialists: publicists to get free ink and airtime, marketers to sell widgets, trainers to make them look good if paparazzi shoot them on a beach in Maui, minions to handle the scheduling and correspondence, editors to edit their words and speechwriters to, I don’t know, write the speeches.

If you want to truly break through and be world-class at whatever you’re trying to do (punk rock, zombie movies, novels about undead orcs and the high school girls who love them), then you must at least PRETEND to do things in a world-class way.

A traditional critique group is like trying to win a Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers with you as the quarterback and a collection of buddies who play flag football sometimes. If football is a foreign language, try this: the usual critique group is like playing a game of chess with a board full of the same piece: all pawns, all bishops or all knights. You need pawns and rooks, bishops and a queen, knights and a king. You need balance.

And if you’re competing against the best in the world, you can’t do it all yourself. That’s like playing the Super Bowl by yourself, or taking a lonely king into a match against the Bobby Fishers of the world.

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Journalism, publicity and scandals, Red Pen of Doom, Speechwriting, The Twitter, the Book of Face and the Series of Tubes

The lost art of rhetoric and persuasion

Whether you write (a) for fun, (b) for money or (c) for all the fast cars and groupies, I bet you’re specialized.

Specialized in the kind of writing you do. Specialized in the kind of education that got you there.

Journalists usually go to journalism school and screenwriters to film school. Playwrights all come from this MFA program in Wisconsin for some reason, and all kinds of novelists spring forth  from the middle of Iowa.

Maui, I could understand. Iowa is cornfields, right? Never been there. Why the cornfields is a fiction mecca, I don’t know.

Anyway: You can divide writing into three areas, based on the goal:

1)      Writing to INFORM (journalism, papers of news, TV, radio, all that)

2)      Writing to PERSUADE (the lost art of speechwriting & rhetoric)

3)      Writing to ENTERTAIN (novels, movies, plays and, as much as it kills me to say it, poetry, though not Gertrude flipping Stein)

Now, I know enough about all three to be dangerous, and this split is something I use when teaching seminars and such.

HOWEVER: It is all bunk.

Total nonsense. Absolute horsepucky. My friends across the pond would call it completely daft.

Col. Potter would use other words. Take it away, Potter.

What are you really trying to do?

Journalists aren’t really trying to inform. Sure, that’s part of it.

Reporters want people to read their story, and to make that happen, they need to persuade their editors to assign them the juicy serial killer piece instead of an obituary about some man who was the once president of the Scranton Valley Chamber of Commerce back in 1985. Then you persuade sources to give them quotes and scoops that other journalists aren’t getting. Next, you write an amazing story to persuade other editors that your story belongs on top of A1 instead of buried on page 18 next to a wire story about Snooki’s baby daddy getting arrested or whatever.

snooki not italian

Snooki: not news, not interesting and not actually Italian.

And finally, journalists want to persuade you to read the story — and for the people who judge journalism contests to give them some kind of prize, maybe even a Pulitzer, so they can convince a bigger newspaper to hire them and let them write bigger stories for slightly bigger paychecks.

Novelists, screenwriters and playwrights aren’t really trying to entertain. Their biggest challenge, again, is persuasion.  There are 5.983 gazillion cable channels, radio stations and movies on Netflix competing for your attention. There’s also an insane diversity of free diversions on the Series of Tubes — and even this place old-timers used to call “outside” and “the real world,” where people sometimes KISSED A GIRL.

Entertainers are competing against all that for your free time and, more importantly, your money. In the two seconds of your attention they have, entertainers need to hook you with a book cover, movie poster or guitar riff, then convince you to blow two hours and $23 bucks on a hardcover book / tickets to THE AVENGERS in 3D plus overpriced popcorn / the Greatest Hits Collection of ABBA.

In the end, it’s all persuasion.

The lost art

The thing is, nobody really teaches rhetoric and persuasion these days.

How many of you know somebody who majored in rhetoric? I bet you know all kinds of people who majored in anthropology, art history and other majors that begin with A and are not exactly in demand. It used to make news when some professor started teaching a class where students dissected episodes of Star Trek, and now it only makes waves when you can MAJOR in pop culture / Madonna songs / Snooki fashion choices during Season 1 versus Season 2.

star wars vs star trek

I was always a STAR WARS kid until the prequels came out and Jar Jar Binks ruined the stupid thing. Also, Jean-Luc Picard turned awesome after he got transmorgified into the Borg or whatever. Also-also: the Borg Queen was the Best Bad Guy Ever.

Even people who did speech and debate don’t exactly get an education in the art. They basically throw you in the deep end of the pool. If you swim, you stay on the team and spend a lot of time riding in vans, sleeping in cheap motels and cutting evidence cards.

Yet the art of rhetoric is more important than ever.

In the old days, you could get by on intimidation and fear. The biggest, toughest, meanest caveman ran the show. If you tried to win a debate with him, he won by using the unstoppable rhetorical device the Greek masters dubbed “crushing your skull with this rock.”

Today, the entire planet runs on oil. Lots of oil. Also, coal, windmills and nuclear power, though the Japan tsunami thing kinda screwed up the whole nuclear shebang. But aside from oil, the world runs on ideas and words — on persuading other human beings to work with you.

The world only works because we can, and do, persuade each other without resorting to rock vs. skull.

You see rhetoric in action every day, whether it’s persuading your four-year-old to brush their teeth, getting a coworker to help on a project or dealing with a tough client.

And unless you work in an ice cave, you’re doing something (a) creative with (b) other human beings (c) in a group. That takes the skills of rhetoric. Also, free bagels sometimes. That greases the skids.

The biggest moments in life aren’t about informing or entertaining. They’re 100 percent persuasion: asking somebody to marry you, getting the bank to hand you MASSIVE PILES OF CASH to buy a home, persuading a boss to hire you, getting the jury to believe you — it’s an endless list.

But we don’t truly teach this. Not in journalism school or film school. Not in that MFA program in Wisconsin or the fiction mecca of Iowa (I like your John Deere hat). And certainly not in high school or college, though it’s not an accident that elite private school and colleges do teach rhetoric, and make students write speeches and deliver them. They know that future CEOs, U.S. senators and presidents sorta kinda need to know how to give speeches and persuade other people to do things.

It’s not like these are big dark secrets. Philosophers were writing all kinds of books on rhetoric TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO, a long time ago in a European country that’s far, far away. These books are still for sale in places we used to call “book stores.”

HOWEVER: Maybe we should talk about such things a little — the basics, nothing crazy advanced or complicated — and save you from reading all 616 pages of Ian Worthington’s A COMPANION TO GREEK RHETORIC.

P.S. Ian the Worthington, I think you rock, and if you autographed my copy, that would be cool. These other jokers, they don’t appreciate your scholarship.

P.P.S. Aristotle was a genius, Socrates was cool and Plato was kind of a jerk.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.

Google+

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Journalism, publicity and scandals, Red Pen of Doom, Speechwriting

Writers and editors: let’s make a deal

For anything Important, you need an editor. I’ve always had editors and wouldn’t think of living without them. The first post on this blog was The evil secret to ALL WRITING – editing is everything – that is not a coincidence.

However, for little things like silly blog posts, it’s eight separate flavors of crazysauce to (a) hire a professional editor, (b) read your blog posts aloud at a flipping critique group or (c) bug your brother / neighbor / best friend to proof blog posts before they go up. (Related post:  Why critique groups MUST DIE)

Also, pro editors / critique groups / friends and family will not have the Keanu Reeves code-monkey skills to hop into the Matrix and wrestle with WordPress.

So: let’s make a deal. A trade.

If you are good at the copy editing and proofing, and want to trade services, hit me in the comments or the Twitter (@speechwriterguy)

It doesn’t have to be “editing silly blog posts in exchange for editing silly blog posts.” I write speeches. For some reason, there aren’t 6.94 bazillion people who do that. If you’re giving a talk to a writing conference or whatever but have never worked with a speechwriter, IT IS USEFUL. A bucket of proofing for a speech is a good trade.

Also, if you are some kind of techno-guru code monkey who can make WordPress do insane tricks, let’s hop on over to Bartertown and make a deal, because the WordPress, it has some bugs that need squashing.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.

Google+

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Filed under Fiction, Red Pen of Doom, Speechwriting

The secret truth about writing

When was the last time you went to a movie and wanted to stay behind and watch it again?

What was the last political stump speech that made you laugh and cry and want to go knock on the doors of your neighbors to make sure they voted? When was the last time you read a newspaper story that built up to an amazing climax instead of petering off into boring little details?

More people are writing more things than ever before. Movies and TV shows, blogs and newspapers, hardcover novels and digital e-books. Yet most of it is forgettable. Trite. Boring.

It used to be, blockbuster movies were the ones that had amazing special effects.

STAR WARS showed us things we’d never seen before, like lightsabers. Who doesn’t want a lightsaber?

JURASSIC PARK gave us dinosaurs that weren’t claymation or puppets. Today, though, any old TV show can afford to have great special effects.

And with the written word — novels, speeches, non-fiction and poetry — every author has the same unlimited special effects budget. You can do whatever you want for free. So what’s the problem?

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Red Pen of Doom, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Speechwriting, Thrillers and mysteries

How to write — and deliver — killer speeches

The New York Times

For two years or whatever, I blogged three times a week about publicity, speechwriting, public relations and scandals for The New York Times’about.com.  If you are an author, actor, director, politician, professional athlete, rock star, user of social media or otherwise in the public eye, THESE POSTS ARE USEFUL TO YOU. If you live in an ice cave, you can safely ignore all this stuff and go back to tanning that elk hide.

These posts, now, are all about speechwriting and speechgiving (yes, that’s not a word, except it should be). Being a writer of speeches and an ex-debater / debate coach, these posts are near and dear to my cold little heart. Do I like this stuff? No. That is not accurate. I like it, I love it, I want some more of it. Bring out the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders for a new routine: “Speeches are good, speeches are great, speeches make us celebrate, GOOOO speeches!” Also: do speeches really matter? Nah. Go work on your bench press, unless want to be a big-shot author, actor, director or president of the United States.

Giving killer speeches, just because you CAN

Using the Tools of Rhetoric in Public Relations

Rhetoric 101: Three Parts Of Rhetoric And Three Types Of Debates

Rhetoric 102: The Right Kind Of Persuasion

Rhetoric 103: Avoiding Fallacies

Rhetoric 104: Know Your Audience

Rhetoric 201: Ethos

Rhetoric 202: Ethos Boosters

Rhetoric 301: Pathos

Rhetoric 401: Logos

Rhetoric 501: How to Write a Short Speech

Rhetoric 502: Putting A Short Speech On An Index Card

Rhetoric 503: How To Practice Short Speeches

Rhetoric 601: How To Write A Keynote Speech

Rhetoric 602: Writing A Keynote Speech For A Client

Rhetoric 603: How To Write A Keynote Speech For Yourself

Rhetoric 604: Seven Ways to Prepare For A Keynote Speech

What You Can Learn From Great Speeches

Rhetoric 610: Learning From Lincoln: Less Is More

Rhetoric 611: Learning From Churchill: Passion and Resolve

Rhetoric 612: Learning from Reagan: Specifics and Real People

How To Prepare For Different Speeches

The Promise and Perils of Presentations

Why You Must Cross-Train Public Speaking Muscles

Speeches Are Seen, Not Heard

The State of the Union Speech

How President Obama Announced Osama Bin Laden’s Death to the World

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.

Google+

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Speechwriting