Tools for the Professional Speaker

Write a Better Speech With Better Tools

What’s in YOUR Speech Toolbox?

My husband is a tool guy. He’s a car guy and a DIY guy, so his passions have driven him to collect every tool known to man, animal and God. Well, I thought he owned every tool. I’m frequently amazed how he can wander through the tool department of Sears and STILL find something he not only DOESN’T own, but MUST own, lest the world tilt off its axis. And how many times have I heard him utter words of frustration, while in the middle of a project he proclaims “I can’t finish it! I don’t have the right tool!” I shake my head in astonishment, as I scan the shelves and racks of cool but uncountable tools neatly housed in the garage and basement. He knows the value of the right tool.

As a speaker, do you know the value of the right tool? Do we have the tools we need? Do we use the tools we have? I am not a great writer, so I have forced myself to use better tools to make my task of writing speeches easier and more effective. I can’t rely on my own intellectual brilliance because I don’t have that much. I need help. The tools I use are simple but effective ones; ones that you too can use to make huge improvements in your speeches.

Tool #1: Thesaurus

Also called a “Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms” a thesaurus is the most powerful tool I use. Did you know you can set yourself apart as a communicator simply by using more interesting vocabulary? In most cases, imaginative and gripping vocabulary will engage the audience quicker, keep their attention longer, and challenge their minds more powerfully than some more common vocabulary. A thesaurus will help you find a word that is more descriptive, precise and inviting. For example, something that is “interesting” can be described as “riveting,” “engaging,” “magnetic,” or “tantalizing.” Instead of saying “gentle,” try “serene,” “soothing,” “tranquil,” or “benign.” Alternate words add both character and clout to your message. The English language is filled with colorful and expressive words. Use a thesaurus to find them!

On my desk I have two thesauruses that I have used through the decades. The Roget’s College Thesaurus in Dictionary Form is my favorite hard copy version. It is easy to use and quite comprehensive. I also use the website which is a little faster and easier to read with my aged dimming eyes. A word of caution: be sure that the more expressive word you choose fits your speaking style, and doesn’t sound like you are reading from a thesaurus. Some words are better read than said. The word “merriment” is a synonym for “fun”, but it could sound a little pretentious or phony if given in a speech, unless you use the proper context and delivery techniques.

Tool #2: Dictionary

Obviously, a dictionary is necessary to insure proper spelling in a written document, but its worth to a speaker should not be minimized. Certainly it’s used to determine proper pronunciation, but far too often, when I thought I was using a great word, I misused it because I didn’t understand its proper meaning. While there are many words that are commonly misspelled, there are also words that are commonly misused, and misusing a word in a speech can bruise or even cripple your credibility. For example, in my former career as an engineer for NASA, I often made presentations explaining the results of our research projects. One of my more experienced peers pointed out that I was misusing the term “data” when referring to a single piece of information. “Data” is plural. “Datum” is singular. To that audience, I sounded naïve. As another example, I heard a speaker use the term “decorum” to refer to decorations in a room. The term actually refers to a high level of dignified behavior or appearance. It is a subtle but important difference. Make sure you have the correct meaning of a word; even if you think you are correct, look it up!

A dictionary is also a fantastic creative tool. Alliteration is a powerful speaking and writing device…using words that start with the same letter. It’s a technique that is pleasing to the listener, helps you to remember your points when speaking, and has sticking power for your audience. I wrote a speech on overcoming regrets, and the three points of the message were: Filter the Falsehoods, Force the Forgetfulness, Face the Front. To develop those message subtitles, I scanned the listings in the dictionary under one letter… in this case I chose “f” because the heart of my message was looking forward, not backwards. I made a list of words that started with “f” and then pieced phrases together to reflect the content of the message. It may seem tedious and time consuming, but the inspiration it unleashed was exhilarating.

Another creative technique is to use acronyms: words whose first letter makes another word. For one message I created, I was encouraging people to volunteer their time, so I used the word “SERVE” as an acronym for my 5 points. The points became “Skills,” “Energy,” “Relationships,” “Vision,” and “Experience.” Again, to find those words, I had my main concepts in mind, and scanned the dictionary listings to find words to fit.

Tool #3: Rhyming Dictionary

Why is Dr. Seuss so appealing? It’s because a rhyme is magnetic and lyrical. Ideas flow and the brain follows. When I discovered a rhyming dictionary, I felt a whole new world of innovative speech crafting had unfolded before my eyes.

Do you know how much more compelling your speeches can be if you add some rhymes? And I bet if you picked up a rhyming dictionary, you will be as astonished as I was with how many rhymes you can find for a certain word. For example, my Miriam Webster’s Rhyming Dictionary lists 72 words that rhyme with “dream”. Without a rhyming dictionary, I could probably think of a dozen. I wouldn’t have thought of “blaspheme,” “downstream,” or “moonbeam.” The listing for “-ate” goes on for pages, and includes words like ‘interpolate,” “necessitate,” and “underestimate.” There are even odd and unusual words like “phosphoenolpyruvate.” The value of this volume is incalculable!

Craig Valentine, the 1999 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking, teaches that a good story should have a foundational phrase: a clear summary statement of the message that is 10 words or fewer. He teaches that one effective way to structure it is to use a rhyme. When I competed in the finals of the World Championship of Public Speaking contest, the title of my speech was “Bless, Not Impress,” which was part of my foundational phrase: “Don’t hide behind pride; seek to bless, not impress.” It flowed, sounded pleasant, and stuck with the audience. Plus, speaking in rhymes is plain fun for everyone. (Look! A rhyme!)

Tool # 4: Books of quotes & inspirational sayings

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it.” Montaigne, one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance wrote: “I do not speak the minds of others except to speak my own mind better.”

A good speech can be made into a great speech by using quotes. It accomplishes several things. A well chosen quote can dramatically increase the impact of your message. Don’t you find that when you hear a powerful quote in speech, you park for a minute on the thought and measure its importance? Not only can you draw from exceptionally good communicators, you strengthen your credibility as you can express your thoughts in a profound way. You also are showing your willingness to learn from others. It levels the ground for your audience because they no longer view YOU as the hero…the hero becomes the source of the quote. It builds a bridge and puts three people on it: you, the listener and the original author of the quote. And in an unexplained way, using a good quote is like having a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” on your speech because now there is an outside authority that meshes with your message.

Sources of quotes abound! I have no fewer than six volumes of quotes on my bookshelf. I scour the internet for quotes. I am not only a voracious reader, I am an incurable underliner. I am always looking for quotes to use, and I use them liberally. You should too. And in every case, make sure you credit the author (or admit you don’t know the author.) If you fail to do this, you imply that you are the originator and it’s inevitable that someone in your audience will know you are not, and your credibility is gone.

Tool #5: Books of jokes, humorous stories, illustrations

As speakers, we know that humor is essential for adding life to our speeches. Humor entertains, but it also provides a release from tension built up in an emotional segment of your talk. The audience needs permission to let go of the intensity. Stories and illustrations are crucial because they can explain complex concepts in a short number of words. I personally keep a story file on my computer… a Word document where I log some of my life’s interesting events with the intent of using them as an illustration in a speech. I also have several books of jokes and humor that I consult, not to use word for word, but to stimulate my creativity so I can uncover the humor in the stories I’ve collected from my own life.

Those are just a few of my favorite speech writing tools. Marshall McLuhan, the influential Canadian philosopher, and diligent student of pop culture in the 70’s, wrote “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” As I admire my husband for his dexterity with his tools, I see that his tools shape his passion. Yours can too. Be the speaker who allows the tools to shape your passion and hone your skills, so that you leave your audience with a memorable and influential message.

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Maureen Zappala was one of the 10 finalists in the 2009 World Champion of Public Speaking contest at the Toastmaster’s International Convention in Mashantucket, Connecticut. She’s been a Toastmaster for more than 7 years. She’s a stay-at-home mom, former NASA engineer, and is a frequent speaker for women’s and teen church events. She lives in Hinckley, Ohio with her husband Jim, and two children, Ross & Gina.

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One Comment

    • kellie Tiong
    • May 5, 2010
    • Reply

    Hi Maureen,

    Awesomely brilliant! And so friendly and I can feel it’s writtten straight from the bottom of your heart.

    Certainly helpful to me as I’m preparing for District level contest – first time!

    Warmest wishes from Sarawak,


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