It’s contest season at Toastmasters, and I’ve listened to quite a few persuasive speeches and also some compelling evaluations over the past month. When I evaluate a speech, I like to give the speaker some simple to remember guidelines to help them improve their presentation and take it to a higher level. My 4H approach works very well in this regard with many standard speeches, but when a speaker primarily uses a story as their backdrop, I like to use something a little different. A fiction writer’s guide to a speech
My Fiction Writers Evaluation looks at a speech as one would look at a good book. It has three primary components…
If all three are present, the content will be considered a success and may go on to become a best-seller or in the case of a speech a standing ovation presentation. If any of the three are missing, the speech may languish and be forgotten just like so many poorly written books. I like to use Sol Stein’s excellent book, Stein on Writing, as my guide. This book has helped me immensely with my fiction, but these concepts are also very powerful in speech.
Fiction Writer’s Guide To a Memorable Speech
Here are some easy to remember speech evaluation guidelines
1. Conflict: Did the speech have contrasting ideas, dialog, and action? Did the speech have a strong Protagonist and Antagonist, or did it languish with boring characters, with little or no energy? Conflict and contrast make a good book, and they also make a great speech. The greater the conflict, the more the listener is drawn in.
A good way to increase conflict is to use particularity to create strong, unique characters and ideas. The clearer the differences are, the better the story. It’s easy to add particularity by invoking the senses when describing people, places, and events.
Sol Stein explains particularity this way…
The first thing you see is usually cliché. We see the tall man, the attractive woman, the room full of people, the clean cut lawn. These are the easy images that leap to mind. The writer’s job is to look for distinguishing detail, the particularity, in visualizing what his reader is to see: the man whose wavy hair wouldn’t stay under his cap; the woman who looked ready to shout at just about anyone; the partygoers jammed together as if they were on a crowded subway train; the virgin lawn that looked as if it had never been walked upon. Ideally, the writer sees something that everybody will recognize but no one has seen quite that way before.
When writing out your speech, take some time to go past the usual cliché’s and create unique and powerful images. Your audience will thank you!
2. Plot: Like a good book, a speech needs a good structure. Did it have a clear beginning, middle, and end? Are there clearly defined scenes? Did the speech flow in a logical manner, or is it disjointed and vague? These are questions to ask when laying out your ideas on paper.
When plotting your thoughts, a great way to add conflict is to give your characters different scripts. When these scripts entangle, conflict occurs. An excellent way to bring different scripts together is to infuse them in a crucible.
Sol Stein explains the idea of a crucible this way…
For plotting an entire work, I especially like the use of a crucible. In ordinary parlance a crucible refers to a vessel in which different ingredients are melded in white hot heat. The word has come to mean a severe test, which leads us to its use in plotting fiction. Author James Frey refers to a crucible as “the container that holds the characters together as things heat up.”
Characters caught in a crucible won’t declare a truce or quit. They’re at it till the end. The key to the crucible is that the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away. Or they can’t run away because they are in a prison cell, a lifeboat, an army, or a family.
Some of the most compelling stories use this concept of a crucible very well. While your plot needs structure, adding a place, an event, or a scene as a crucible may help you cement your story in the minds of your listeners.
3. Action: Using short sentences, strong action verbs, and focused descriptions can increase the speed of your writing and also really helps move your speech along. A good book needs to move along at a good clip. If it slows too much the reader may lose interest. The same goes for a good speech. A good pace keeps your audience engaged.
One key way to do this is to use the action voice in your speaking instead of the passive. Grammatically speaking, if you can use the action voice instead of the passive, you’ll keep your audience more involved.
Here is a simple diagram of the active voice…
Subject | Verb | Object
Jack ate the apple
Jack | Eats | Apple
This sentence would read like this in the passive voice…
The apple is eaten by Jack
The passive voice tends to suck the life out of your writing and speaking. When crafting your speech, write it in the active voice if at all possible. Alternatively, you can use the passive voice to slow the action or mellow out the passage.
Another way to pick up the pace and add interest is to use disagreement and conflict.
As Sol describes…
If you combine two different scripts, the frequent result is disagreement and conflict—disagreeable in life and invaluable in writing, for conflict is the ingredient that makes action dramatic. When we get involved with other people, the chances of a clash are present even with people we love because we do not have the same scripts in our heads. And the tension is even greater when we are involved with the antagonist.
Using the action voice and tying in conflict and disagreement with a strong antagonist can lead to an amazing story and a successful speech.
Overall: When you can combine conflict, action, and a strong plot together, you have the ingredients for an award-winning book or speech. Before giving your story based speech or presentation put it through the Fiction Writer’s speech evaluation. Use the active voice, particularity, and good plot structure to create your masterpiece!
If you are a writer or a speaker, Sol’s book is a valuable resource.
Question: Have you ever given this style of speech evaluation before?