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Speak their language.

What do you say?

A better question might be “How do you say it?”.

Marketing genius Seth Godin was writing about writing this week. I had speaking in mind, though, when I read this in his newsletter: “It’s tempting to simply focus our attention on the text itself… But messages merely begin with the text. The rhythm, presentation, source, and context deliver most of what we take away from a message.”

Amen to that!

A client preparing for an important speech came to my office dining room table this week with a copy of her speech. It was fine.

And “fine” isn’t exactly a home run, is it? When somebody asks how you are and you say, “Fine” you might as well say, “Meh.” “Fine” is not “fabulous.”

My job is to help my client bring this talk from fine to fabulous.

That meant changing the rhythm and presentation. Shifting from perfectly adequate text to natural language she might use in conversation. And then saying those words in a similarly natural, conversational tone.

It’s not so easy, as you know if you’ve ever written and delivered a speech, especially one with a time limit.

We’re likely to read the words as they appear on the page, or maybe we even memorize the words as they appear on the page, and then we say them in a phony rhythm that sounds (not surprisingly) just like somebody reading words from the page.

This is not the way to engage an audience!

The truth is, spoken English and written English are different languages.

Yes, they have much in common. But if you listen to an ordinary conversation you’ll hear contractions, colloquial expressions or slang, and plainer words than most people use when they write an important document. Like, say, a speech they’re going to deliver to a few hundred people.

When we stand up in front of an audience and say what we wrote, the result can be stiff, and dull, and phony. That is a great way to lose our listeners’ attention. And once lost, it’s hard as hell to get that engagement back.

This is why it’s so important to draw people in from the jump. And the way to do that is to talk to them as if they … and we … are real human beings.

As my client put it, she needed my help to colloquialize her speech. You don’t often hear “colloquial” as a verb, but it is one.

Per “The word “colloquialize” refers to the process of adapting a formal language or speech to make it more conversational and relatable to its audience.”

They also offer some synonyms. Simplify, vernacularize, popularize, adapt … call it what you will.

To me, the important thing is that we do make our language more conversational. Not because our audience doesn’t understand formal, written English. But because our audience doesn’t speak formal written English. When we speak their language, we’re on the path to making an impact and having some influence.

To really get there, a speaker also needs some pizzazz, right?

Even the best copy falls flat when it’s delivered badly.

So, we make sure to include a story (or several) to illustrate and illuminate the point we want to make. We probably include a personal story. It can be surprising how strongly listeners (readers too) respond when we share an experience of our own, when we reveal something of ourselves.

Speaking style is important too. Our words are more likely to make a difference when we say them with some variety in our volume and tone, avoiding that singsong, reading-a-script rhythm. When we make eye contact with individuals in the audience. And when we use gestures to emphasize, illustrate, and add energy to what we say.

There’s no shame in getting some help to master all that.

Maybe you caught story in the New York Times or the Trib about the one-time advertising executive who coaches rabbis as they prepare their High Holidays sermons. It’s all about adding some punch, or as she says in Yiddish, some “zetz,” so they’ll make an impact that lasts all year.

And of course, politicians and corporate executives have pros who write their speeches for them. Although if you watch the news at all, you’ll likely agree with me that a lot of them could still use some coaching to make their words more meaningful with stronger speaking skills.

You might need to brush up on those skills yourself. You know where to find me