“Well, do ya, punk?”: Writing It Like They Say It

Friend of the Blog Eric responded to my post on quote-crafting with an interesting question:

“I’m not someone who writes a lot of press releases, but I regularly craft remarks, speeches, and talking points and find it very challenging to capture little nuances that make the language used authentic to the speaker. What other tricks can you share for identifying and then incorporating the phrases and language structure that makes one person’s voice distinct?

There’s enough to the answer that it deserves its own post. So, here goes.

“That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”
~ Neil Armstrong

“You have delighted us long enough.”
~ Jane Austen

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

History-making. Sly putdown. Summoning the future. These lines are memorable and distinctive. They immediately conjure images of their authors – and it’s unlikely we’d confuse Austen for King.

We may not have the chance to craft talking points for an event as memorable as the first moon landing or a speech like the one delivered by Martin Luther King at the March on Washington, but you can bet your client wants his or her words to make some kind of impression on the audience.

Capturing the “voice” of a leader goes a long way toward making his or her remarks remarkable. How do you find those nuances and write them into speeches and talking points?

Know Your Audience

From developing a communications strategy and plan to writing a speech or crafting a tweet, it always starts with the audience.

  • What does your audience need to know?
  • What do they care about?
  • What will keep them focused and what will make them tune out?
  • How deep is their understanding of the subject?
  • Which style of writing (and ultimately speaking) will they find convincing? Will they appreciate erudite language or find it silly?

At Martin Luther King Day celebrations, audiences gathered to honor Dr. King may appreciate nostalgia as much as they do vision. When cutting the ribbon to open a new mall, the crowds probably want speakers to keep it as plain and short as possible, so they can get to the opening day bargains as quickly as possible.

Understand the audience, and you’re off to a good start.


Let’s start with speechwriting. It’s the easiest.

Typically, you’ll have more time to write a speech and at least one opportunity to sit down with the speaker, discuss the topic, specific goals and examples, tone, and whether they want slides or not.

As I mentioned in the last post, bring a digital recorder to this meeting. It may be days or even weeks before you sit down to actually write (having done research in the meantime, presumably), so revisiting your conversation via DTR will give you a good starting point.

Having a digital recorder running also allows you to focus on the conversation with the speaker, rather than taking dictation. Instead of scribbling down everything the speaker says, make notes about things like tone of voice, attitude and vocabulary.

While you’re in the meeting, ask lots of questions. Go beyond the standard questions about the audience and what the speaker wants them to take away.

What you’re aiming for is material – words, phrases, examples, and tone that are specific to the speaker that you can use verbatim when you write the speech.

Notice: How comfortable is the speaker with this topic? Is it a difficult subject? Does it feel like boilerplate – the same speech he gives at every conference?

Drive down to the smallest level of detail when discussing the examples she wants to use. Why this example? Are there others? Is this based on the speaker’s own research or experience? How did she come to learn or understand this? What intrigued her most about this work? Where did she get so frustrated she thought she might quit? Was there a surprise along the way? Or an “a-ha!” moment? Why does she feel this research or example best supports the subject matter? Could there be others? What about opposing points of view?

Now, listen to the vocabulary used to answer these questions. Does the speaker sound bored as he replies? Does his energy level or volume pick up in places? How about yours? Note when he says something that you never knew before or starts to weave a captivating story.

Remember, you’re an audience, too. If you’re interested, the conference attendees may be, as well. (Always good to double-check: Find out from the speaker whether he’s told these stories before and how well-versed the audience is in the material, then select the unexpected or most detailed examples to use in the speech.)

If you’re not hearing what you need, keep probing. Go back to an example the speaker wants to use. Say your speaker is going to address a high school graduation, but they’re used to giving talks at industry conferences. Remind them of the audience and ask them to repeat the example as if they were talking to their own teenager or niece or nephew. What you’re looking for is language that’s relatable to an audience that has yet to select a college major, much less pursue a career. They have dreams about what they want to achieve, but aren’t sure how to get there, so language (and an example) that values those forward-looking visions while providing solid guidance is perfect.

Same thing – in reverse – if the speaker is making the content understandable for you, but not in-depth enough for a group of fellow engineers. This is where you need the vocabulary and subject matter of the insider, someone who’s spent years in the industry.

If, for some reason, a meeting is deemed unnecessary, insist on one – even 30 minutes – before you write. When speakers are unavailable or out of town, ask if you can exchange emails directly with the speaker (not her administrative assistant) to go over key details about the speech. In these cases, observe their writing style. How do they construct sentences? Where do their thoughts take a turn for the lyrical or descriptive? When do they get prescriptive? Do they build to a conclusion or deliver the goods in a summary statement and then provide rationale later?

Transcribe the recording immediately, and then check the transcription as soon as it comes back. If a transcriber has left any blank spaces (because they couldn’t understand the tape), now’s the time to fill them in before you forget what was said and how it was said. Take your notes and mark up the transcript in the places you observed your speaker doing her best or losing interest. Where did she stumble over an explanation? When did she hit a home run?

You’ll want to refer to the recording as you write to capture nuances and for inspiration.

If there’s a chance you’ll be asked to write another speech or talking points for this leader, always save your recording, so you can refer to it the next time you have to put words in his mouth.

Sitting Down to Write

Typically, when writing for the ear – a speech or talking points – you use the Subject – Verb – Object style, so that the audience understands what (noun/subject) the speaker is about to discuss, then the action (verb) the subject undertakes, and who or what (object) is being acted upon.

Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech follows this style throughout. The simple repetition of S – V – O sentences creates a rhythm of accumulated and highly specific examples:

“…this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…all men are created equal…

“…the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…

Then, suddenly, as the speech reaches its crescendo, King drives his message home, starting each sentence with the percussive power of verbs:

“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring…
            Free at last! Free at last!
           Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

In a century of great speech-making (Winston Churchill during WWII, Indira Ghandi, presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in Berlin, Nelson Mandela’s unifying rallies), King’s “I Have A Dream” is considered one of the very best.

It’s his use of repetition to create rhythm and drive home key points, the specificity of detail, and the cadences of a sermon that buoy listeners (even those hearing the speech many decades later on YouTube) and carry them forward, like a wave.

Which of these elements can you make use of? As you listen back to your conversation on the DTR, make note of the following:

Vocabulary – Where does he use the language of the insider and how can you weave this into your speech (and where might you need to include a definition) so that he’s speaking to the audience at their level? Are there words she’s particularly attached to? Does the repetition help the speech or slow it down? Why is this particular language important to her?

Energy level – Where is he interested in the subject matter? Where does his enthusiasm drop off? How can you build on moments of high energy to carry him through topics that might put him and the audience to sleep?

Rhythm – Does she have a natural ability for storytelling? If she tends to use complex sentences every time she speaks, mix it up to create a better rhythm. Vary sentence length and style. Have her ask a question, where a statement sounded rote.

Don’t think you’re up to writing something as eloquent as Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech? Trust me, you’re not alone there. The goal is to learn from it, not copy it.

We remember Dr. King’s speech today for any number of reasons – to honor a civil rights leader, to hold on to a positive vision of the future, to understand a point in time in the history of the United States – but, the reason it’s remembered by so many is pretty basic: the writer understood his audience. Dr. King was doing far more in that speech than “singing to the choir” of people who joined the March on Washington and supported his cause. He understood that his words had to reach into the White House and the halls of Congress and the Supreme Court, that they’d be recorded by television cameras and beamed to places like Mississippi and Alabama, where there was a terrible war on the civil rights movement. And, he wanted his words to mean something to the average American, in the north, the Midwest and the west, who was struggling to understand what was happening in the south.

This is why Dr. King relied on the language of the sermon: it was uplifting and visionary and it built a bridge across the divide. It’s why Dr. King went to the language of Lincoln and the founders of the United States: to place his cause in historical context and to help those who didn’t agree with civil rights understand how the movement fit with the beliefs and values America held most dear.

You don’t have to write like Dr. King to be a good speechwriter; you just need to understand what he was doing and who he was writing for.

That's one simple statement to cut through all the static on the moon.

A far more simple example is astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous line from the first moonwalk. Why was “one small step for man” so simply phrased? Why weren’t the first words uttered from the moon akin to Shakespeare? Because the writer knew his audience.

In this case, the writer understood that more than a nation, a whole world was watching Neil Armstrong. Whatever he wrote for Armstrong had to be simple enough to translate into dozens and dozens of languages as news organizations around the world reported the story. It couldn’t be Shakespeare for another simple reason: The transmission was so static-filled that the message had to be short and clear. A great reminder that you don’t have to be high-falutin’ to write memorable phrases – you just have to understand your audience and the context in which your leader is speaking.

Pointed Remarks

“I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots, or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
~ Clint Eastwood, “Dirty Harry”

“Voice” is something every novelist, screenwriter and literary journalist strives to master.

If you’re asked to prepare talking points or remarks for a specific speaker, the most helpful thing you can do is write like they talk. These are the lines you want reporters to take down in their notebooks and include in news articles. They’re the “take-aways” you want the audience to remember after the conference, the fundraising dinner, the employee meeting.

Examine that famous quote from “Dirty Harry” above. What makes it distinctive? Why do we still remember it decades after the movie was in theaters?

Even as it’s written, it sounds like natural human speech – specifically, it sounds like Harry Callahan speaks. With its “kinda” and “well do ya” and the split infinitive of “blow your head clean off,” it doesn’t sound rehearsed or “written.”

Look what’s happening with the phrase “and would blow your head clean off.” It’s the most violent image, the biggest threat, in these lines. Yet, it doesn’t come at the end, and it isn’t even a properly worded sentence, it’s a fragment. He doesn’t say, “I will blow off your head” in perfect S – V – O/no split infinitive style. He doesn’t say, “blow off your head.” The power comes from the double-barrelled action supplied by that split verb: “blow” (verb), “your head” (object) and the vernacular of “clean off” (versus “off” alone). It’s this awkward locution that gives the final line, a question (not a definitive he-man statement) about feeling lucky, its power and threat.

Most likely, your speaker won’t be comfortable if every “you” in his remarks is replaced with “ya,” but to make talking points sound more natural, more heartfelt, more real, remember that it’s okay to break the rules of grammar and use vocabulary that’s distinctive and memorable.

Finally, take your talking points out for a spin. Saying them out loud to colleagues or friends is the perfect way to test if your talking points sound like someone “just talking” or a bad actor doing a Dirty Harry impersonation.

Dialogue that inspired me this week:

Katharine Hepburn (Susan): “Oh, I’m caught on something – David, help me, will you?”
Cary Grant (David): “Oh, no. That’s poison ivy.”
Hepburn: “I bet you wouldn’t treat Miss Swallow [David’s fiancé] this way.”
Grant: “I bet Miss Swallow knows poison ivy when she sees it.”
Hepburn: “Yes, I bet poison ivy runs when it sees her.”
~ “Bringing Up Baby”