If you watched the Grammys you saw “Hamilton” creator and star, Lin Manuel Miranda thank his cast, band, and collaborators and family for his Best Musical Theater Album. Playing off the hip-hop infused musical he gave a hip-hop infused acceptance speech. Here are two excerpts from the 45-second verse:
We write music, we write songs to tell a story,
Whether you’re King Kendrick or Jeanine Tesori.
Vanessa, Angie, Illie, Ellie, we adore you. Sebastian,
Daddy’s bringing home a Grammy for you.
Even if you didn’t know anything about the musical, the rhythm and rhyme of his acceptance speech caught your ear. You couldn’t help but listen to it.
On the flip side of Miranda’s memorable acceptance speech is another type of well- known speech: the one a 13-year-old gives at his or her Bar and Bat Mitzvah. (If you have never heard one, check out Saturday Night Live’s “Bar Mitzvah Boy”). For the past six years I have volunteered at my synagogue to give a workshop called “How to Have a Blast on the Bimah (pulpit) and Impress Your Friends and Family”.
When I see students mumble and race through their speeches, eyes locked on their scripts, I quickly diagnose the sources of their problem: being 13 years old, raging hormones, and excruciating self-consciousness. To get the students past these obstacles, I developed a way to reduce their nerves and help them infuse some meaning into their delivery. I ask them to read their speech to the group as a rap song. While they think this is all fun and games, what I am really doing is teaching them how to give their message some needed rhythm. They learn how to punch a key word or a phrase, how to change the pace and cadence of their speech, and enjoy themselves a little more.
My third example is the writing style of recently deceased (and yes, controversial) Justice Antonin Scalia. He was the go-to-guy among his peers because his written text always read like an excellent speech. According to his clerks, during the drafting process, he used to read his written opinions out loud. He will be remembered for many things, but the one I choose to remember is that he knew how to get his message heard. If you want to be a successful speaker, you must know how to do this.
If your words lay flat on the page instead of come alive when you talk – meaning they are boring to listen to – you haven’t written a viable script. The best way to ensure that people will listen to what you have to say is to write in a conversational tone.
Recently I coached an executive who admitted to piling “ten-dollar words” into her scripts. The effect was that listeners had to define every other word and lost the essence of her message. I gave her two tips. One was to write her speech out loud. She is now using “Dictation” software to record her words rather than write them down. Second, because she is so knowledgeable and leans toward being academic, I told her to imagine giving her speech to a good friend over a glass of beer. (I had never given this advice before, but with her, it seemed to make sense.) Almost instantly her big words disappeared and went from five syllables to one. She became animated and passionate about her topic, and I felt the impact of her message for the first time.
If I still haven’t persuaded you to write and speak more rhythmically and conversationally, then consider the words of the great actor, Robert DeNiro. He said that what helps him most when working with a script is the rhythm of the words. The rhythm tells him where to place the emotion and he added, helps him memorize his lines.
So, there you have it. Words of wisdom from a Grammy-winning musical creator and star, rap-talking Bar and Bat Mitzvah Students, a former Supreme Court Justice, a Fortune 500 Executive, and one of the greatest actors of our time.
All that’s left is for me to remind you to:
- Infuse your phrases with a beat: They will be more interesting to listen to and easier to understand and remember.
- Use words that you would say to a good friend and save the flashy ones for a dissertation or professional journal article.
- Work with a coach if my advice sounds spot-on but is hard to put into practice.
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