“Conversational” Speeches Take Preparation

Christopher Witt —  August 1, 2013

Roosevelt giving his firs fireside chat

Conversational presentations, which are sometimes the best, take a lot more work than you’d think.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a fine orator. His speech to the U.S. Senate the day following the attack on Pearl Harbor asking for a declaration of war against Japan is a classic. It’s masterfully crafted with beautiful and haunting phrases. And it was delivered with power and poise.

But in his time Roosevelt was better known — and better loved — for his “fireside chats.” Over the course of ten years he gave a series of thirty radio addresses in which he spoke directly and personally to the American public.

Roosevelt’s “chats” are a model for today’s speeches. Read them and you’ll see what I mean.

They are conversational. (That’s why they’re called chats.) It was easy for his audiences to imagine that he was seated with them in their living rooms, simply talking with them.

And yet they were at the same time totally unlike conversations as we know them. Pay attention the next time you have a conversation. Or better yet, record your next conversation and listen to it. I guarantee, you’ll be appalled.

A typical conversation is not a pretty thing. It’s unorganized. It has no goal and follows no plan. We start a sentence going one direction and shift course halfway through. We rarely complete a thought, much less a sentence. We say “um,” “ah,” “you know,” and “like” more than we’d want to admit.

So the trick is this:

A good speech is like a conversation (clear, direct, personal, engaging) and unlike a conversation (planned, structured, purposeful, precise).

That’s why Roosevelt’s chats are worth emulating or, at least, learning from.

The very first sentences of Roosevelt’s first fireside chat are:

I want to talk for a few minutes with people of the United States about banking–with the comparatively few who understand the mechanisms of banking, but more particularly with the overwhelming majority who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks. I want to tell you about what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.

Notice a couple of things:

  1. He says “I” and “you.”
    Those are the pronouns of a conversation. I am talking to you. Gone are the days, fortunately, when speakers would use silly circumlocutions like “this speaker” to avoid saying “I,” out of fear that they would sound too egocentric. But speakers still use “they” or “them” when speaking to or about the audience.
  2. He eliminates all pleasantries.
    He doesn’t say, “I’m happy to be here with you today.” He doesn’t thank the sponsors or meeting planners, or acknowledge dignitaries. (And, of course, he doesn’t apologize for being a poor speaker or for not having had the time to prepare.) He just jumps right in, as you would with a conversation.
  3. He identifies what he’s going to talk about.
  4. He uses a simple, clean structure and simple, clear words.
    His first sentence is a long wind up, a formally constructed sentence that is still easy to follow. It contrasts perfectly to the second sentence, which is a model of clarity and simplicity. Each word in that second sentence is a single syllable.

Roosevelt didn’t waste a word. Not a single word.

His address was so conversational that you might think that he was simply speaking spontaneously or from a rough outline. But you’d be wrong. To achieve the effect of sounding conversational, he–and his speechwriters–worked hard. They prepared his remarks. And he practiced them. And he was a masterful speaker to begin with.

So here’s my takeaway:

If you want your speeches and presentations to sound conversational, you have your work cut out for you.

Prepare an outline. Write out your speech or, at the very least, write out the opening and closing and main points. Edit it. Edit it again. Prepare another outline. Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse.

After all, you want your presentations to sound like an idealized conversation, like the dialogue in a good movie or play, not like a common, everyday conversation.

photo courtesy of www.whitehousehistory.org.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

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