Speechwriting tips from a speechwriting expert

A picture of Rick Kotick, head of competitive intelligence at RBC

Rick Kotick

We write our fair share of speeches, but Rick Kotick, Head of Competitive Intelligence, RBC Global Asset Management, writes more. He speaks at least twice a month to investment advisors and mutual fund wholesalers across the RBC network, MBA students at York University’s Schulich School of Business and members of the Junior Achievers of Central Ontario. And he’s a Toastmaster. He sat down to talk to us about his process, managing stage fright and how he overcomes what he thinks is the hardest part of speech writing.

Re:word (RW): Thanks for taking the time to chat with us.

Rick Kotick (RK): It’s my pleasure.

RW: First off, how long are your speeches generally?

RK: My presentations to advisors are generally 20 to 30 minutes with Q&A at the end. The workshops are 90 minutes and when I give speeches at my local Toastmasters club, they are 5 to 7 minutes long.

RW: What’s your research process like? Where do you go for content and inspiration?

RK: Online sources are my first port of call. As part of my job, I also regularly read industry research reports on market trends. In general, you can get inspiration on content from anywhere. YouTube videos, chats with friends and family, etc.

RW: So once you have your angle and your information, where do you generally begin the speechwriting process? Do you go sequentially or do you sometimes start in the middle or the end?

RK: I’m sure everyone’s different but I’ve found that the best way for me to write a speech is by creating on outline first. It helps me organize my ideas, set the material in a logical form and shows me the relationships among ideas.

Once I have the outline, I list the key points, arrange them in order and expand on each one. Then I develop the intro and the close. Once you have a well-structured outline, with key points listed in a logical order, you’ve got 80 percent of your speech already written. The introduction and conclusion should flow naturally after that.

RW: Do you have people look at your speeches before you give them? If so, who?

RK: I practise my speech in front of friends, colleagues and/or family members. I’m fortunate enough to have people I trust and whose feedback I value. There’s no such thing as a perfect speech so I try to incorporate their feedback before I go “live.”

RW: Interesting that you say there’s no such thing as a perfect speech. But some must be better than others. How do you know when it’s killer?

RK: I never know until after I deliver it. People aren’t shy about giving you their feedback or sharing their views on your topic. During your speech, though, you can tell if your audience is engaged and listening to your every word. That’s a pretty good indicator that you’re holding their attention and haven’t put them to sleep.

RW: Speaking of audience, is there anything specific you like to know about them as you prepare?

RK: Other than the basic demographic information (age, male/female ratio, occupation and education), I like to know things like political orientation and what they generally like to do for fun. It helps me weave in some anecdotes I can use to connect with them.

I also like to know what they know already so I don’t waste their time. That’s probably the worst thing you can do in a speech. Especially these days when it’s so easy to lose people’s attention to their phones.

RW: Well, you’re clearly doing something right, given the profile you have. Is there something notable you’ve learned over the past few years on the speaking tour?

RK: It seems intuitive but practice makes perfect. It’s exceedingly rare to find someone who can wing a speech or prepare it the night before and pull it off with ease. Effective verbal communication is rare yet essential in any line of work.

I’ve also learned that soft skills are a differentiator. Many people have the right mix of technical skills and education but they can’t effectively convey their ideas to a general audience. The best way to set yourself apart is with the ability to communicate smoothly, succinctly and effectively.

RW: Does the practice and prep help you get over stage fright?

RK: I’ll let you in on a little secret. Anyone who tells you they don’t battle their nerves before giving a speech is lying. I’ve read about and researched famous orators, stand-up comedians, politicians and musicians and the one thing they all have in common is a feeling of nervousness before they perform. Having butterflies before giving a speech is not a bad thing. Everyone has them. But making those butterflies fly in formation can help you harness your nervous energy.

RW: Speaking of nerves, what’s the hardest part of speech writing in your opinion?

RK: Getting started is without a doubt the biggest obstacle for many people. But using a simple structure like an outline can get you over that inertia. The outline is also a way to beat the procrastination bug ¾ and that’s something that every speaker battles with, no matter how much experience they have.

RW: We’d be remiss if we didn’t ask you this one last question: does having a well-written speech make giving the speech easier?

RK: It’s not what you say but how you say it. Delivery will determine how good your speech is. One study on communication effectiveness that I reference often states that tone of voice accounts for 38 percent of your speech effectiveness, and non-verbal cues account for another 55 percent. In other words, your spoken words only account for 7 percent. Again, it’s not what you say but how you say it.

RW: That’s not exactly the answer we were looking for.

RK: Fair enough. But I can tell you this: you can’t hide behind crummy content. If a speech isn’t well-researched, if it doesn’t have strong salient points and if it doesn’t leave the audience with something to think about, it won’t matter how well it’s delivered.

 

A word is worth an infinite number of pictures

What’s more powerful, a word or an image? It’s a hotly debated topic in creative circles and cases have been made for both. Here’s our case for words:

When you read a word, your mind pictures the subject. Take “horse,” for example. Are you picturing a white horse or a black horse or a brown horse? Is it a stallion? A mare? A Clydesdale pulling a Budweiser stagecoach? Is it a racehorse? And if so, is it a thoroughbred (jockey on top) or a standardbred (jockey in a chariot behind)? Or maybe you picture horse the basketball game or horse the slang for heroin?

Point is, a word activates the mind and lets it go in any direction. An image is designed to contain no ambiguity. Yes, it’s helpful. But is it more powerful? Sure, everyone experiences an image differently, but they see the same thing. With a word, everyone sees something different.

So what can a good copywriter do with words?

In a word (two, actually): thought guidance. We use these words to elicit the right picture in the reader’s mind and the right emotion in their hearts. We get them to see the ideal state: the easier life, the better day, the more productive hour, the prettier date, the larger boat or the better food.

And then we use our words to create action. Pictures can’t do that — they can attract eyeballs but they can’t move hands. Only words can do that. The right words. At the right time. Arranged in the right way. And shown to the right people.

Think about this the next time a banner ad,  brochure or billboard catches your eye. Think about how it made you feel, then think about what made you feel that way: the way it looked or the message it delivered.

Here are a few that caught our eye over the years. We wish we wrote them all:

A print ad for De Beers that reads: Remember when you got that variable speed hammer drill? It'll make her feel kind of like that.

Directed at men. Celebrating the way men think. Perfect.

 

A Porsche ad that reads" If you could choose between world peace and a Porsche 911, what colour would you want your Porsche to be?"

Fantastic subhead. Full of attitude, but classy. And you’re probably picturing your new ride right now.

 

A print ad for Avis rent a car that reads: "Avis is only No.2 in rent a cars. So why go with us? We try damned hard. (When you're not the biggest, you have to.) We just can't afford dirty ashtrays. Or half-empty gas tanks. Or worn wipers. Or unwashed cars. Or low ties. Or anything less than seat-adjusters that adjust. Heaters that heat. Defrosters that defrost. Obviously, the think we try hardest for is just to be nice. To start you out right with a new car, like a lively, super-torque Ford and a pleasant smile. To know, say, where you get a good pastrami sandwich in Duluth. Why? Because we can't afford to take you for granted. Go with us next time. The line at our counter is shorter.

122 words to completely change the way people saw Avis — and the now former #1 Hertz.

 

An ad for Hoover vacuums with an image of an airplane window and the line "For a product demo, break the glass".

The image sucks you in. The copy gives you the feeling of being sucked out. And you get it. 100%.

 

An Economist ad that reads "To err is human. To er, um, ah is unacceptable."

The Economist is the best for clever. It’s true in their magazine AND their advertising. No image necessary. You can picture The Economist reader and their level of intelligence. And you want to be like them.

The Suzanne way

We get back to people promptly. We even allude to it as part of our email signature, which looks like this:

Re:word Communications
Choose your words wisely™
416-800-9257 • 1-855-800-9257
Visit the new reword.ca. It’s a fun read.
If you don’t think this email is for you, please let us know. We hate to keep clients waiting.

It seems like a no -brainer, but yet we get so many people thanking us for a quick callback as if they’re not used to it. It strikes us as odd that more companies don’t follow the first rule of customer service:

Treat every customer like the first customer.

We remember the day we published our first website, which looked like this:

This is the old Re:word website.

 

It wasn’t awesome but we didn’t know any better. We were happy to be out there living the dream. Then on day 3, a request came in from Suzanne who needed her company’s shareholder report edited. We were ecstatic. We were about to make our first official dollar. We called her back right away, took the brief and ran with it. The final product was delivered on time and it was “perfect…so much better!” — Suzanne’s words.

There’s the work. And then there’s the experience.

Responsiveness. That’s what made Suzanne feel better about choosing us. Because, if we’re honest, any editor worth their hourly would have been able to do the work well. But she was our first, and more than making a good impression with the work, we wanted to show her we really wanted her business. Because we really wanted it. So we took the four calls she made in the six hours we spent editing her piece. We delivered when we said we were going to deliver. And we explained the choices we made.

And as for Suzanne, we wound up doing three more projects with her at that job. She’s since moved jobs twice and continues to reach out for copy editing from time to time. And we always call her back promptly — every time she calls.

Write on

Even professional writers get stuck from time to time. It happens. And when it does, it’s positively terrifying.

Imagine, if you will, a terrible, horrible bully staring you in the face, mocking your every move. He blocks every path you can think of to get around him. And just when you think you have the way, he pulls you by the back of the shirt and drags you down.

That bully is a blank page, and he’s relentless.

So what’s the answer?

Well, it’s the same answer you’d give a ten-year-old confronting a bully in the school yard: whatever you do, don’t back down.

In our world, that simply means “keep writing.”

It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to make sense. And it doesn’t have to be on brief. Because the more we write, the more ideas we generate. If they’re bad, we’re flushing them out of our system. If they’re half-baked, then it could be the start of something. But the more we write, the more likely we are to come up with something worth running with, exploring and eventually sharing.

One of our favourite scenes from any movie is towards the end of Braveheart when William Wallace is talking to his buddies about taking a meeting with Robert The Bruce. They know it’s a trap — and deep down, so does he. But he says to them: “We’ve got to try. You know what happens if we don’t? Nothing.”

The same’s true of writing. So we push on. We pepper our walls with headlines and subheads, first thoughts, fragments, inklings and ideas. Most of them end up in the bin where they belong, but the ones that survive blossom into something more. They’re the start of a master brand positioning, a killer message or a paragraph of body copy that seals the deal with the reader and gets them to act.

Some people are appalled by the amount of paper we use (especially since we don’t like using both sides). But for us, it’s all for a greater purpose: to get to awesome.

And when we do, we slay the bully. And if you’ve ever dealt with one of those, nothing feels better.

 

Braveheart

Slay the beast! Defeat the bully!! Put down the enemy!!! McYolluch!!!!

What we look for in a copywriter

Of course you have to be a good writer.

You have to be able to string sentences together and keep us reading them.

But that’s just one part of it.

The other part of it is an insatiable need to know.

When you’re writing about something, you have to want to dive deep into it and learn everything you can about it.

You have to instinctively understand that the more familiar you are with something, the more likely you’ll be to find a unique angle that’ll make your audience go “hmmm…” and want to know more.

And you have to believe that there’s something interesting about everything if you’re willing to put the work in to find it.

Yes, copywriting is about style. But it’s more about substance and research.

We can tell if someone’s mailed in that part of the job. Not because we’re professionals. Because we’re people who read. We know when our time’s being wasted with things we already know. And we hate that, because time’s ultimately all we have.

Want to write for us? Keep this blog post in mind. Then jump on the Google and check out the DDB Volkswagen ads from the 1960s. Read them over and over again. Enjoy them because they’re so well written, but also because they’re so well researched.

We can teach the craft. We can suggest techniques to get writing punchier and tighter. And we can edit the hell out of a piece until it sings like a boys’ choir. But we can’t teach someone to want to learn more. That’s instinctive. Either you have it or you don’t.

So, yes. We want writers. But more than that, we want learners.

Sound like you? Great. Let’s talk. We’d love to know more about you.

 

 

 

 

 

The best answer ever

We just started working with a client who has offices in Bogota and Athens. In our initial interview, for our own curiousity, we asked him why he chose those two cities. His response: “salsa and island-hopping.” It made us so happy.

Our dream’s a bit different. Eventually, we want to buy a boat and run the business from wherever we are. Right now, we’re toying with “Capital Sea” and “Write Full Rudder” as names. But we’re open to suggestions if you have any.

We’re also debating where to go first. Gina says Sardinia. Dan says Portofino. We could probably do both. But for that to happen, we need to staff up. So if you know any copywriters, copyeditors, proofreaders or translators, please send them along. “Decked out” (ooh..) isn’t gonna buy itself.

Greek Island

Our new office.

The comeback

ClownBilly’s grandfather took him to the circus when he was eleven years old. When they got in under the big top, Billy’s eyes lit up. The sounds. The colours. The energy. He could hardly contain himself. But then his grandfather showed him the tickets. Front row! Heaven.

They sat. The lights went down. And out came the clowns. The crowd erupted, but no one cheered more than Billy. So much so that the head clown took notice. He walked over to Billy. The music went down. The spotlight flipped on and shone down on Billy. The clown pulled a fuzzy microphone from his over-sized coat, put it to his mouth and cleared his throat.

“Hey, kid…are you the horse’s head?”

“No!” said Billy with a grin.

“Then you must be the horse’s ass!”

The crowd roared with laughter, but Billy was mortified. The clown put the microphone to Billy’s mouth, almost daring him to say something. Billy froze. He had nothing but a single tear rolling down his cheek. He ran from the big top to the sound of a mocking audience.

The next day, Billy’s grandfather enrolled him in a kiddie improv class where he learned the art of zinging quickly. Grandpa vowed to bring Billy back to the circus so he could confront the clown.

Five years later, they went back. Same big top. Same seats. And the same clown came out. This  time, Billy was ready. He made sure the clown saw him. And sure enough, the clown came over, and pulled out the microphone.

“Hey, kid…are you the horse’s head?”

“No!” said Billy confidently.

“Then you must be the horse’s ass!”

Billy took a deep breath in…and froze.

He had nothing.

The derision in the crowd was palpable.

Billy ran out in tears.

Being sixteen now, Billy was able to make his own decisions, and he decided to enroll in the International School of Comebacks in Denver. For eight months, he practised. And he got really good.

He came home and was ready.

This time, he bought the tickets and invited his grandfather with him. Same big top. Same seats. And yes, same clown.

“Hey, man…” said the clown. “Are you the horse’s head?”

“No.”

“Then you must be the horse’s ass!”

“Hey, clown…”

“Fuck you.”

 

“I concur. Message is authentic.”

Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide

“Give me the missile keys, Mr. Hunter.”

If you smiled when you read the headline, then you’ve seen the most well-written action movie in the history of action movies: Crimson Tide. The movie takes place almost exclusively in the belly of a nuclear submarine where Captain Ramsay (Gene Hackman) and Lt. Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) represent opposing sides of a debate with no clear right and wrong. To say anything else would spoil it, but here’s what we can tell you:

The script is rivetingDuring filming, director Tony Scott felt the script lacked intelligence and sophistication, given the level of talent he was working with. So they brought in a young writer to punch it up, a writer they heard had a gift for dialogue. That writer: Quentin Tarantino.

The supporting roles were perfectly cast. Look out for George Dzundza as the Chief of the Boat. Note how “professionally” he delivers his lines. Same for the youngish James Gandolfini. But the killer performance for us was Viggo Mortensen’s as the guy with an actual finger on the actual button.

The pauses are better than the action. So much of writing is knowing when to put the pen down and just let the situation sink in. This movie masters that. It’s so intense.

The soundtrack is AMAZING to write to. If you’re the kind of writer for whom silence is louder than noise, and you need something on in the background, we can’t recommend this Hans Zimmer special enough. Quiet enough to keep you from losing focus, but powerful enough to inspire greatness. Your fingers start moving and they don’t stop.

You’ll want to watch it again. Certain scenes have to be watched twice (even thrice) to fully appreciate. The quick cuts to facial expressions. The intonations. And, of course, the intense moments of silence that leave you on the edge of your seat. Movie-making at its finest.

 

The Dan Files

January 2003 was a really tough time for me.

The previous June, I was let go from my first ad agency job. “No problem, I thought. I’m talented. I’ll get another job in no time.

I thought very, very wrong.

Six months later, I had no money or prospects of making any. My EI had run out. And I developed a nasty case of insomnia. After about two weeks of sleeplessness, when the delirium had sufficiently set in, I got the brilliant idea to show up at Roche — THE hotshot agency at the time — at 7:30 in the morning and park myself in their waiting room until someone saw me.

On Thursday, January 30th, after being alone with my negative thoughts for 240 hours, that’s what I did.

Roche’s waiting room was a white and blue room with two chairs, a couch and a telephone in the middle. It also had a glass wall that faced out into the hallway. Perfect, no one’ll notice the bags under my eyes and the desperation in my posture.

I picked up the phone. “Good morning,” the voice said. “Who are you here to see?”

This was my moment.

“I’m a young copywriter looking for work,” I said. “I’ll see anyone who’ll see me.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Ok. Have a seat.”

Seriously? That worked? Had the delirium finally morphed into hallucinations? Nope. This was happening. Geoffrey Roche was going to come see me. He was going to look at my book and hire me on the spot. And I was going to learn from the best in the game. Amazing.

But wait…I hadn’t slept in two weeks. Did I look it? Was my first impression going to be an unkept, exhausted desperate failure? Shit. This was my one chance. Fuck. Mr. Roche is going to take one look at me, laugh in my face and kick me out.

8:30. Nothing.

No problem. People are busy. Meetings. Brainstorms. I remember those. All good. Feeling better. Maybe I’ll take a quick nap? No. Don’t do that.

9:30. Nothing.

“I’m really getting sick of playing snake on my phone. I wish I could, like, go on the Internet or something. That’d be cool.”

10:30. Nothing.

“Maybe I should leave? This was stupid. Who does this? Who do I think I am? Just show up like this? The chutzpah!”

11:30. Nothing.

“That’s it…it’s enough already. I’m leaving. This was a waste of time.

11:45. A man walks into the room.

“You’re Dan?”

“I am.”

“I’m Jim. Come on in.”

Jim was Jim Diorio, a senior copywriter. He took me into his office. He looked at my book. He told me what he liked and what he didn’t. He gave me advice. We met for a good 25 minutes. Nothing came of it, but that wasn’t the point. He met with me.

The world needs more Jim Diorios.

 

Ad ad written by Jim Diorio

This is one of Jim’s best. Look at it ’til you get it. So worth it.

The Dinner Party Test

Dinner party from the 1940'sThink about the commitment someone is making when they choose to read something you give them. It’s substantial. The act of reading is the act of giving your time and attention to someone else’s ideas, and we’d argue that time and attention are the two most valuable pieces of yourself you can offer up, precisely because you can’t put a price on it.

What’s more, giving your time and attention means you’re not only receptive, but also willing to share if it’s compelling enough to do so. The concept of sharing information is the power behind social media, and it’s the precursor to achieving “cred” — the more people speak about you, the more people know you, what you do and why they should care.

A good writer is keenly aware of these facts and makes for damn sure that whatever their reader is committing to is going to offer value in some way. Every scribe has their own way of measuring this. For us it’s the dinner party test.

“So listen to this…”

We love when dinner party conversations start this way because we know we’re about to learn something new. And illumination’s a great feeling, especially when it comes at an unexpected place like dinner with friends. In every piece we write we try to include something worth breaking out at a dinner party —  an argument, a fact in support of an argument or a perspective that chops an argument down. Either way, we do the digging and wordsmithing to work it in. To us, that’s the ultimate value-add: something a reader can take away and use at a later date for their own purposes, in this case, to add to (or improve) a dinner party conversation.

The three qualities of dinner-parrty worthiness

Well-researched. Clearly articulated. Surprisingly different. It’s that simple. And it’s category agnostic. Whether we’re writing about sports gambling, investing in cultural programs, building circuit boards or chicken caesar pitas (FYI: we wrote about all of these this month), we go the extra mile to give our readers something they can break out at a dinner party. It makes our clients happy because people are talking about them. It makes our readers happy because it gives them something to talk about. And it makes the dinner party host happy because at a good dinner party, the conversation flows as freely as the wine.