10/05/2014 11:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Speech Is All About the Word 'About'


Audiences are self-centered.

Famous choreographer George Balanchine once mocked the hapless gentleman who goes to the theatre to cry over his own life: "I'm married," he mimicked, "my wife and children have left me, and I'm unhappy and feel that I'm going to kill myself. And that's what I think art is - people should pay me for my story."

Your customers think the same way. I say this without cynicism, or disrespect. They rightfully expect you to aim for the center of their lives and to immediately grasp the predicaments they face every day.

That means you need to talk about them not just to them when you deliver a speech, to your customers at a trade show, or your colleagues at a staff meeting. Talk about the audience.

Take a lesson from FDR's first inaugural speech in 1933, when the Great Depression brought great suffering. The phrase that is most often quoted from that address is "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," but I am more interested in the technique behind these words:

We face our common difficulties... Values have shrunk to fantastic levels: taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; and the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return.

This speech resonated because most Americans could recognized their own lives coming to life in the words.

On a lighter note, NPR's Terry Gross, of Fresh Air fame, used a similar approach in a graduation speech at Bryn Mawr this past spring:

So many of you know me as the person you were forced to listen to in your parent's car, or in the carpool on your way to and from school every day. And here you are on one of the most important days of your lives, forced to listen to me again. And you're probably wondering, 'So what's she gonna do today, ask questions?'

Like FDR and Terry Gross, try to read the minds of the listeners. Tap into their pain, their fears, their aspirations.

Here's another tip: Add an "About You" section to the navigation bar on your website. In fact, make that the landing page. If the viewers see an explanation of their needs there, they'll in turn want to get to know you.

Did I guess your thoughts? Hope so. I tried to write about you.

Source for Balanchine quote: "Balanchine Said," in The New Yorker, 1/26/09.

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