Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Pitfalls in the Pomp of Speeches and Storytelling

Tis the season for graduations, and this year, I will be attending at least four. Two down, two to go.

For fear of being misinterpreted as overly critical, let me begin by saying I thoroughly enjoy listening to senior speeches. They are full of insights and accomplishments that graduates should be proud to share.

However, they also provide a glimpse of some pitfalls common to speeches and writing alike. Writers, take note! Finding these mistakes in someone else’s speech is much easier to do than spotting them in the pages of our own writing.

Don’t use a big word when a small one will do.

Graduates have drilled vocabulary words, memorized SAT and ACT lists, and frequented dictionary.com on a regular basis. They are proud of their knowledge, and well, they should be.

The irony is that after learning impressive-sounding words like penchant and ambiance, deleterious and surreptitious, graduates have people (like me) tell them to replace their pedantic words for everyday ones.

Why? While knowing what big words mean is important, most people don’t like stuffiness. They prefer simplicity.

In the writing world, remember that readers don’t want to keep a dictionary by their side. They want to get lost in the story, not the meaning of the word anachronistic.

Word choice and appropriateness will make all the difference in your ability to communicate.

Don’t be wordy.

The best speeches are short, simple and sincere. My favorite speech so far has contained all three of these qualities. The result? I was able to relate to the graduate and actually remember something from the speech (without scribbling notes).

If you are writing a novel, you may have to skip the “short” part, but you should not sacrifice clarity for word count. If an action does not serve to build the plot, cut it out. If the dialogue is humorous but long-winded, trim it up.

In short, make every word count.

Don’t preach at your audience.

One of the speeches I heard belonged more at a political pep rally than a graduation ceremony. While I agreed with what the graduate was saying, I also felt myself stiffen as though someone were shouting at me.

No one enjoys a lecture, and as writers, this pill can be a hard one to swallow – especially for Christian fiction writers. We want to convey truth through a story, but how can we do so without pointing fingers?

Here’s my suggestion: Tell the story well, and let the story tell the truth. Make the struggle your character’s struggle, and simply let the audience watch the drama unfold and come to their own conclusions.

Thank you to all the graduates for sharing your speeches and words of wisdom. Congratulations on what you have accomplished! May your futures be bright.  


  1. You are a better person than me. The older I get, the less patience I have to listen to "pearls of wisdom" of an 18 year old on what they learned in the none-real-world existence of high school.

    More power to you :)

  2. Yes, you have a good point. I confess that I've heard speeches that have made me want to shake my head, because the "real world" just doesn't work that way.

    I want to encourage graduates to dream big (because they should) but also to understand that life often doesn't go the way we plan. Graduation should be an exciting, but also a humbling, time, because graduates need to hand their dreams and futures over to God - and allow Him to shape them as He sees best.

  3. Very well said.

  4. I attended a graduation the other night and heard the best graduation speech I've ever heard by a valedictorian. It was funny and light-hearted and she playfully made fun of the teachers and students while, at the same time, being hopeful and enthusiastic. It was a testament to the humorous personality of the speaker. No "pearls of wisdom," just laughs and hope. It was perfect.

  5. That does sound like a great speech!