the inspiration blog

Melania, Michelle, speechwriting and finding your own voice

Posted on: July 19, 2016

This week, Donald Trump’s wife Melania made headlines when she was caught plagiarizing a speech of Michelle Obama’s from 2008. Even though it was just a small segment from her keynote, that’s what got all of the attention. (If you haven’t seen it, check out a short video that shows Michelle and Melania side by side. Notice your reactions to their speaking styles as well – we’ll get to that in a bit.)

Regardless of your politics (although I can’t exactly say I’m a Trump fan, by any stretch of the imagination), let’s look at what this teaches us about both speechwriting and delivery.

First of all, it doesn’t matter whether the plagiarism was true or not: it completely hijacked the public’s attention away from the message she was trying to impart. So we need to be careful with how we write our talks, so that we have our audience’s eyes on the goal. (See below for more on this.)

Second, if you’ve watched the comparison video, notice who you trust more… Michelle or Melania?

Comparing their delivery styles

Michelle is relaxed and has great expressiveness; Melania is stiff and wooden, with almost no facial expressions at all. Bodily relaxation and facial expressions are key components to getting your audience to trust you; they also highly contribute to becoming more confident – because it’s hard to be nervous if you’re totally relaxed! In fact, you have to be relaxed to let your true charisma come out… and to find true presence.

You might say, “Well, Melania is from another country, so it’s expected for her to be less comfortable.” That’s possible. What I’ve found, after having worked with clients from 5 continents, is that non-native English speakers hold greater tension and have more anxiety in public speaking. However, disposition is not destiny. They can apply the exact same techniques I teach everyone else, and find relaxed confidence and presence – I’ve seen it countless times. The key is simply to commit to your training, and you’ll get there.

And that’s important. Because when you’re truly relaxed, and really connect with your audience, you’ll have their trust.

What Melania vs. Michelle implies about being original

Most people care about speaking with their true voice. And because of that, many people – especially those interested in authenticity, as you likely are – may resist elements they’ve been told to do, like employing speech structure.

It’s possible that you may feel confined by it, and “just want to express yourself authentically.” However, speechwriting – both for keynotes and if you are speaking to expose people to your services – needs structure. You need to grab attention at the beginning, have them excited throughout, and be in the palm of your hand at the end. 

Here’s the good news: there’s a difference between structure and being formulaic. If a talk is formulaic, that means it’s predictable. You’re not surprised by what they say next. Many people who’ve learned to “speak to sell” have been given fill-in-the-blank templates with verbiage that isn’t how they normally talk – and audiences who’ve seen a few speakers with the same templates verbatim can know what’s coming. That’s formula.

Good structure, on the other hand, is invisible. It’s there, but it’s organic. The audience is moved and persuaded. The speaker has written the talk using clear guidelines… and she has found room for her own voice to come out. One of my favorite sayings from my graduate theatre training was, “Structure creates freedom.” For example, working from home may sound desirable… and yet possesses challenges for many because there’s no outside structure to get anything done. With public speaking, you want some amount of structure so that you’re free to color between the lines however you like. Just make sure that there’s enough coloring space! 

What’s the big lesson here?

While it’s easy to criticize Melania and the Trump campaign, let’s remember: public speaking is an art and a science. From dynamic delivery to gaining confidence and presence (and of course writing the talk itself), it takes time to master. Many can do it half-decently, but few stand out – and those who do grab your attention have most likely had real training.

If you want to make a difference, and really claim your voice, I encourage you to embark on that path. Because the world needs what you have to say.


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