Dickensian tips on writing a speech for the ears.
Watching the BBC’s Dickensian with its entertaining admixture of characters from all over the (Old Curiosity) shop reminds me of a speechwriting truth:
Always write your speech for the ears.
Dickens’ stories demanded to be read out loud. They’re ripe with exquisite detail and sensuous world-building that translates so well to oration. (No wonder he gave so many public readings.) Try reading his description of Christmas morning in London from Stave III of A Christmas Carol without wanting to declaim it.
His words don’t just paint pictures, they engage the senses. They resonate. Something we should all try and emulate when we’re writing for an audience.
We’ll take some speechwriting tips from Mr Dickens in a bit. But first, a quick primer on Dickensian in case you haven’t seen it.…
Dickensian imagines a world where characters from Dickens’ best loved novels co-exist; their lives and stories intertwining with one another. It’s a fun premise for a fun series. A Dickensian soap opera, a bit like EastEnders, but with better hair and prettier dialogue.
Those soap opera trappings would be as familiar to Dickens’ readers as the oleaginous parade of grotesques on display in his books, or his penchant for social satire. He was after all, a consistently populist writer, and told proper page-turners; big juicy crockpots of gothic melodrama, peopled by all manner of cadaverous old ghouls, wheedling ne’er do wells and honest-to-goodness rags-to-riches heroes.
Seeing so many of his best loved and most reviled characters on display all at once in Dickensian proves his proto-soap credentials. Some of his most memorable creations are super soap archetypes: from the hard-up, heart-of-gold Cratchits, to the scheming Meriweather Compeyson, by way of the waspish Ebenezer Scrooge.
Dickens’ characters are certainly painted from vivid stock. And often, it’s their dialogue that marks them out so strongly. (If all the world’s a stage and we are merely players, then I’d certainly want Charles Dickens writing all my lines.)
So what should we learn from Dickens about writing a speech for the ears? Memorable dialogue’s a good starter...
A speech for the ears uses your tone of voice
You’ve got a unique tone of voice. There are things you say that no one else says quite like you. Those funny little quirks of language; those little embellishments; that colloquial swagger – whatever it is you’ve got, make the most of it. Make the most of you.
Or, if you’re engaging a speechwriter to write your speech for you, make sure they can approximate your tone of voice.
How to keep your audience listening
Dickens’ longer stories were serialised, with most chapters working to a similar pattern – a gradual build-up of suspense, ending in a game-changing cliff-hanger. Something to bring readers scurrying back to find out what happens next week.
You can follow this example by building moments of tension and relief into your speech. Think of it like music, with developing themes, crescendos and rests, all central to the rhythm of a compelling speech.
Make them care about your speech
Let’s consider Dickens’ unerring ability to wring emotion out of his readers. A necessary skill for any speechwriter trying to get listeners to invest in what they’re saying.
Think about Tiny Tim. One of Dickens’ more emotionally manipulative characters to be sure. But think about how Dickens spends time laying careful groundwork, making us care about Tim, just as Scrooge starts to. Then, all he has to do is foreshadow Tim’s death with a single image – a vacant crutch without an owner – and we’re in tatters.
You can do the same. By carefully insinuating your emotional touchpoints throughout your speech, you can leave your audience with a single arresting image. Something that ties it all together or sums everything up.
If you want to write a speech for the ears, give your audience stories they’ll want to hear
One of Dickens’ greatest talents – and something any hard-up writer would steal Tiny Tim’s crutch to possess – was his ability to combine story and message.
None of his books read like a social treatise, but his social conscience always shines through. It’s his call to action. But it’s not overt. The story and the sales pitch are effortlessly intertwined.
Write for your ears first
One final piece of advice. Make sure you like what you hear. If you’re not comfortable delivering the speech you’ve written (or someone has written for you) your audience aren’t going to be able to enjoy it either.
And if you need any help, give me a call on 0115 8284986 or use the UK Speechwriter contact form.