Speech writing tips from Test Match Special (no cricketing insight required)
I love Test Match Special (TMS). For those of you who don’t know, TMS is one of those peculiarly English institutions. Basically, you get a revolving door cast of ex-cricketers and commentators witling on for five days straight about pigeons, busses, the merits of cakes and cranes – oh, and the cricket too, obviously.
TMS is a refreshing change of pace from most other forms of sports commentary. Listening to football commentators can be a painful experience, full of increasingly histrionic soundbytes stitched together by passages of stating-the-bleeding-obvious.
But a Test Match lends itself to radio coverage. It can be a languid affair. The course of the drama ebbs and flows over the five days. Each session of play tells its own story – a small but meaningful piece of the whole. There are sub plots and unexpected twists and turns. Quick wickets and brisk run chases. There are individual battles being played out between batsman and bowler. And there are bigger, broader battles between different cricketing ideologies and approaches to the game, between tradition and modernity even.
I also think it's a rich source of speech writing tips and inspiration. Here's why...
Cherish the difference
You get an altogether different experience of a match from a radio broadcast. But not a diminished experience...
On TMS, the commentary is frequently, legendarily eccentric. I love the mix of keen insight and roundabout recollection; the at-odds mix of poetic observation and inviolable statistics. Analyst Andrew can put every shot in the broader context of the whole history of the game. While Ed Smith speaks with such keen insight and understanding of the mechanics and the mentality of cricket.
For me, it's all the richer for being driven by observation and conversation. I can still 'see' the action, but I get a lot more besides.
What can speechwriters learn from TMS?
Well, here are my TMS-inspired speech writing tips:
Words are more evocative than images…
… Of course I would say that. I’m a speechwriter!
Listening to any commentary requires the listener to do a bit of work. Speeches can (and should) be the same. If you spoon-feed your audience everything they need to know, they'll quickly get bored and drift off. But if you keep them listening actively; even get them working a bit, you'll keep them engaged. Of course some vivid language and evocative imagery really helps.
Cricket isn't like football; there are long passages of the day when your attention isn't focussed on the action. So all that peripheral TMS detail about cranes and pigeons helps paint a broader picture of what's happening.
When you write your speech, don't fixate on your core message to the exclusion of all else. Lead up to it. Tease it. Talk around it. Do whatever you can to set the scene and build up a little antcipation. It'll be wtime wel spent.
A speech is a communal experience
Given the choice, I’d rather listen to TMS than watch the TV broadcast. What you may lose in terms of the immediacy of the action, you more than make up for in terms of the experience. The company even. The radio coverage doesn’t try to emulate the TV coverage at all. It makes the most of its medium.
The radio coverage is actually more involving than the TV coverage. Partly that’s because, like the Test Match, there are running themes and call-backs to previous comments. There is an ongoing narrative thread to it. And it feels like a communal affair. Listeners contribute, send in questions (or cakes) and get involved in a way that that the TV viewer doesn’t.
Remember that your speech is a communal experience too. That's one of the things that really sets it apart from other forms of marekting communication. It's not just the words as written that make the speech, it's the little moments of interaction with your audience; it's the ad libs and off-the-cuff comments that make it live.
An identifiable brand
One of the revealing things about TMS from a marketing perspective is that it’s got such a readily identifiable brand. And I think that’s especially interesting given that it’s made up of so many disparate voices…
Compare and contrast the plummy tones of Henry Blofeld and the cantankerousness of Geoffrey Boycott. In a recent broadcast, Boycott lamented sourly “There’s nothing happening. Nothing at all!” And if you can imagine that in his voice, so much the better.
So it’s interesting to hear the eclectic range of voices that make up a typical TMS broadcast. So many different regional accents – as well as statistics from a South African, and, depending on who England are playing, contributions from ex-players from India, Australia, the West Indies… It all adds up to a rich melting pot of voices and perspectives.
There’s no party line. No house style. Contributors speak openly, honestly and engagingly. And they speak their mind. Sometimes that makes for contentious listening. Sometimes amusing. Sometimes whimsical. But always beguiling. If you tried to replicate that format today, it wouldn’t work. It would be over-engineered and contrived. But TMS is that rarest of things – a format that has evolved naturally over the years. A format that isn’t the slightest bit influenced or compromised by flashier competition from television. Like any good brand it stands proud for what it is, not what it isn’t.
When you write and speak to an audiece give them somethign of yourself. Don;t try and replicate other speakers's tyles. Be you. Give your audience something genuine.
Make the most of your medium
So TMS proves that making the most of our medium, whether that’s TV or radio, web or print matters. And you can go further. Make the most of the possibilities afforded by speaking directly to your audience.
If you can involve them, do. If you can draw out contributions from your audience, do. Talk to them. Find faces in the audience and involve them. Make it feel interactive. Above all, make your audience feel wanted. It's surprising what a difference that makes.
Here’s to next summer…
Above all, TMS proves that interesting, surprising and enjoyable content is more valuable and potentially more affecting than anything else. We should cherish it.
Find your own speech writing tips in your favourite things
I've always found my hobbies and interests are a good source of inspiration to me in my professional life. So I'm sure you can discover some unique speech writing tips in your own list of favourite things. And if you have any you'd like to share, do please let me know via the UK Speechwriter contact form.