Writing a Speech Using the Grocery List Method

How many of you make a grocery list before you go shopping? How many of you have crossed something off the list and added something else? Congratulations. You’re a speechwriter.

Woman's hands holding a shopping list of six items, two of which have been crossed out, over a shopping cart in the produce sectionIt’s that easy—and that hard.

Let’s compare the process of preparing a grocery list and writing a speech. You compose a first draft, then revise it because maybe you already have ketchup and garlic—or repeat your point one too many times. But you notice you’re out of onions and put that on the list, or add an emotional story in your speech that will bring tears to your audience’s eyes.

You put stars next to the must-haves in both list and speech. You double-check the meat, dairy, produce, frozen foods, paper products—and your spelling, your subject-verb agreement, and your word choice. You’re constantly revising your grocery list until you have to turn the key in your car and drive to the store—or your speech until heading to a Toastmasters meeting to give it a dry run.

You’ve given yourself enough time to shop, come home, unload, and make dinner—just as you’ve timed your speech to be delivered in the allotted time. If you’re a frequent shopper, you know your stage directions and strategically move from aisle to aisle. You practice vocal variety when you raise your voice just enough to allow the slicer at the deli counter to hear you, but not loud enough to annoy the other shoppers.

You come home and you discover you forgot to put something on or take something off the list. It’s never done and you’re never completely satisfied. But you still make a darn good stew with the ingredients you have. And, your audience is satisfied too.

Congratulations. You’re a tasty speechwriter using the grocery list method.

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

Write It, Speak It Workshop presented by Tom Pfeifer of Consistent Voice Communications, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., March 11, 2017, Vienna, VA. Free. Register Now

Remembering Our First President’s Warning on Parties

As we prepare for the peaceful transition of government in a nation divided by party, creed, economics, geography, religion, and race, it is perhaps instructive to remember this portion of George Washington’s Farewell Address:

george-washington-1731-1799-on-engraving-from-the-1800s-can-stock-photo-georgiosart-smI have already intimated to you the danger of Parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on Geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, & warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally.

This Spirit, unfortunately, is inseperable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind. It exists under different shapes in all Governments, more or less stifled, controuled, or repressed; but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages & countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders & miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security & repose in the absolute power of an Individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight) the common & continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise People to discourage and restrain it.

(Excerpted from the University of Virginia, The Papers of George Washington, Farewell Address – Transcription)

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

3 Tips for Conducting an Interview for Publication

Al Gore had just invented the Internet when I landed my first journalism gig, but it was not yet widely available to the public. While the technology since then has made it easier in some respects to prepare and conduct an interview, the basic skills have remained the same. Here are three tips for conducting an interview that have not changed over the past three decades even as the technology has.

Research first


Microfiche Reader/Image by Wesley Fryer

In the dark ages, newspapers had morgues where dead stories and photographs were stored and indexed according to subject, date, and people. A librarian kept track of the archives and if a reporter needed historical information on a person or event, the librarian tracked it down. Larger newspapers kept files on microfiche or microfilm, in which newspaper pages were miniaturized on a flat film (microfiche) or a rolled film (microfilm). Journalists used a reader to enlarge and read the files.  Scribes at smaller papers drove to the local library to scan the micro files. It was very time-consuming and not something easily accomplished for a breaking news story.

Microfiche is still in use, though it’s harder to find the film and machines to produce and read them, according to three document-scanning company blogs I read to research this musing. As late as 2009, the Gainesville Times was even reporting some organizations found micro files to be superior storage devices over digital.

I still use my local library for research, though I haven’t touched a microfiche machine in decades. But I believe I’m in the majority by using the Internet to perform most of my profile research these days.

I currently write articles mostly for associations and other non-profits. When I receive an assignment to interview a subject, I always start by checking their LinkedIn profile. Many of my subjects are professionals and have a LinkedIn presence. I peruse their work history and see if they have any published articles listed. A caveat here is many people do not keep their profiles updated. It’s not unusual to find a previous employer listed as the current employer or out-of-date credentials.

I then look for a Facebook and Twitter presence. Facebook is great for getting a feel for the whole person beyond their professional accomplishments. Right after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, I was asked to interview someone whose Facebook page screamed “Happy Cubs Fan.” By congratulating her for “her” victory, I was able to instantly develop a rapport and conduct a friendly, productive interview.

After I exhaust social media possibilities, I conduct a Google search. I often find stories about awards the person has won that pertain to the subject matter or articles they have written about the subject matter. If you have access to Lexis-Nexis, you can find peer-reviewed articles that are often hidden behind firewalls.

Prepare questions

Female journalist taking notesOnce you have researched the interviewee and possibly the subject matter, write up some prepared questions. Writing for organizational magazines is different from writing for a media outlet. As a journalist, it’s akin to committing a felony to allow sources to review your story prior to publication, although some outlets allow you to run direct quotes by the sources. In nonprofit writing, it’s routine to allow sources to read and correct stories before submission. For that reason, I often email my prepared questions to the interviewee a few days before the interview. Unless they thrive on attention, they most likely do not have much experience being interviewed and will be thankful for the time to prepare. Be sure you know what the rules of the publication are on this point before you take or don’t take action.

Once you’re in the interview, don’t strictly adhere to your prepared questions. Ask follow-up questions. Ask a question that pops up in your head. Ask for clarity. Ask for embellishment. Be curious. Who is this person and why does he or she think or act this way?

Ask one final question

The final question I ask in every interview is often the most important and one that is never shared in advance with my subject: “Is there anything I didn’t ask you that I should have?”

Most times, the subject responds with, “No. I don’t think so. Those were pretty good questions.” What follows then is 15 to 20 minutes of something near and dear to their heart that often becomes the nut of the story. Why? Because no matter how much research you do before an interview, you still only know the surface of the person.  You don’t fully know what’s inside their head. Give them the opportunity to tell you and you’ll be wonderfully surprised.

These three tips have served me well over the years. What would you add to the list?

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

Still, and Always, an Apprentice at My Craft

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” —Ernest Hemingway

young-women-reworking-a-paperIn my book, Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! I devote an entire subchapter to the art of the rewrite. In most cases, the first draft is going to be, simply put, a first draft. It’s through the art of rewriting that the magic happens.

Here’s a snippet from that section:

“I’ve written pieces with which I was satisfied after the first rewrite. But unless I’m posting to Facebook or Twitter, that’s rare. (Yes, I do edit my posts before I post. Facebook now allows you to edit after you post, and I’ve done that too.) For short pieces of 1,000 words or fewer, most of what I write goes through a minimum of three rewrites before I think I’m done. A rewrite could be as simple as tightening up some sentences. It could be as involved as moving some paragraphs around for better flow. Sometimes I’ve found a nut buried in the piece and rewrote it with that nut as my lead. And that doesn’t count the partial rewrites I do within a piece as I’m writing it.”

There is no rule on how many rewrites a piece should undergo. I rewrite until I’m satisfied it is the best it can be or a deadline forces me to push the send button. I’m a big believer in deadlines, because if it weren’t for deadlines, I’d keep rewriting. I have been a professional writer for more than 30 years and every published piece I have reread I have said, “I could have written that better.” I changed a word in the above paragraph because the one in the book no longer worked for me. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Writers are apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master. And, I’m perfectly comfortable with that.

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.


I Sprinkled Salt and Pepper on My Words and Ate Them

Three weeks ago, I wrote these words:

businessman-rips-open-his-shirt-to-show-his-presidential-seal-t-shirt-can-stock-photo-ijdema-72“The majority of the American people do not like Hillary Clinton and do not trust her. But she will win over Donald Trump, and win handily, because hers is the more disciplined campaign.”

Wednesday morning, I sprinkled salt and pepper on those words and ate them.

As a professional communicator and the veteran of several political campaigns, I firmly believe, as I wrote three weeks ago: “The No. 1 rule of any campaign—political or otherwise—is to stay on message. Being disciplined doesn’t guarantee success. But being undisciplined guarantees failure.”

President-elect Trump did everything wrong from a communications standpoint. He frequently veered off message. He consistently took the Clinton bait and kept a controversial story alive for days after it should have died from inattention. He lacked the get-out-the-vote structure every campaign needs to win.

Trump broke all the rules of modern-day politics and won. Why? Was Clinton that weak of a candidate? Is the electorate so undisciplined that Trump’s Wild West campaigning from an Ivory Trump Tower appealed to them? Was his seemingly undisciplined campaign weirdly disciplined?

A number of factors were in play, starting with yes, Clinton really was that weak a candidate. She is no Bill Clinton and no Barack Obama. She fails to inspire. Breaking the glass ceiling was not enough of a reason for Democrats—who have to be REALLY inspired to make the effort to vote—to strike a ballot for the team. Clinton stood for the status quo. Few are inspired by the status quo, particularly during the longest recovery in U.S. history peppered by ever-rising health insurance premiums and deductibles.

Clinton also took voters in Michigan and Wisconsin for granted—another usually fatal mistake. Never make your friends feel like stepchildren, especially when those friends are in a world of economic hurt. Trump’s six trips to Michigan stood out precisely because no one expected him to win there, but it showed he cared for their plight. Clinton’s last-minute visits were too little, too late.

So Trump pulled it off. Possibly he is the only one who could have because I believe the rule still applies to us mere mortals: “Being disciplined doesn’t guarantee success. But being undisciplined guarantees failure.” He overcame that by not standing for the status quo, by not taking voters for granted, and by being weirdly disciplined in the final weeks.

With digested words, I congratulate you, President-elect Trump. I wish you and my country well.

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

Snarky New Yorkers Tell Cubs Fans, “You’re Welcome”

Is this the Year of the Tony?

Chicago Cubs fans can thank two snarky New Yorkers for the Cubs advancing to Major League Baseball’s World Series.

portrait-of-funny-goat-looking-to-camera-can-stock-photo-inc-stranger28It started nearly two years ago when my brother moved in and our Mets-Nationals rivalry heated up. Jim is a diehard Mets fan. I root for the home team wherever I happen to call home. For the past 18 years, home has been the greater Washington, DC, area.

Neither of us had followed baseball closely in many years. Jim had lived in the Carolinas, where baseball is nonexistent. I lived with my wife and two daughters, where testosterone was nonexistent.

Things heated up during the 2015 season as the Mets and Nationals fought for supremacy. The Nats faltered in August and never recovered. Nonetheless, Jim and I rooted for our respective teams on Labor Day at Nationals Park.  I hoped for a comeback, but the Mets won the game 8-5 and went on to win the Division title. They beat the Chicago Cubs in the Pennant Series to advance to the World Series, where the Kansas City Royals knocked them out in five games.

During the course of the 2015 season, Jim and I had assigned the Chicago Cubs to my son-in-law, Tony. We did it as a joke. Tony had never followed sports before. It seemed natural to assign him the Cubs, a perennially hopeless team. The Cubs finished 2014 with a 73-89 record. They had not advanced to the World Series since 1945. They hadn’t won a World Series since 1908. They had the curse of the goat, placed on them in 1945 by Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis when his goat, Murphy, was either banned from the stadium or removed from the stadium, depending on what story you want to believe.

Separate from being an unwitting Cubs fan, Tony is enchanted by goats. He often talks about buying enough land to run a goat farm.  In 2016, goat-loving Tony became a Cubs fan for real and paid attention to the games and standings. On Saturday—Tony’s 32nd birthday and the 46th anniversary of Sianis’ death—the Cubs shut out the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 to advance to the World Series. Tony is ecstatic.

Jim and I are bummed. The Mets blew the Wild Card game at home against the San Francisco Giants. The Nats, once again, failed to progress beyond the Division Series, losing to the Dodgers two games to three. It wasn’t our year.

It’s goat-enamored Tony’s year. Will Tony break the curse? If so, Jim and I say to Cubs fans, “You’re welcome.”

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

Undisciplined Trump Hands Election to Distrusted and Disliked Clinton

When Donald Trump loses the presidential election 19 days from now, it won’t be because he’s a misogynist, bigot, or an egomaniac. It won’t be because of some vast left-wing conspiracy. It will be because he ran the most undisciplined campaign in modern American history.

discipline-bridge-weak-to-strong-can-stock-photo-inc-andreyncBecause of that, he will lose to a Democratic candidate who was easily beatable. Hillary Clinton has more skeletons in her closet than a party store the day after Halloween. The majority of the American people do not like her and do not trust her. But she will win, and win handily, because hers is the more disciplined campaign.

Donald Trump would not be our first misogynistic, bigoted, and egomaniacal president. But the other misogynistic, bigoted, and egomaniacal candidates ran disciplined campaigns and we didn’t know the true measure of those traits until they left office.

The No. 1 rule of any campaign—political or otherwise—is to stay on message. Being disciplined doesn’t guarantee success. But being undisciplined guarantees failure. The Republican’s message should have focused on healthcare and the middle class. On small business taxes. On how Obamacare has made health insurance unaffordable for the masses and deprived small businesses the opportunity to care for their employees. It should have been laser-focused on Hillary’s ties to Wall Street and the hundreds of thousands she was paid for just three speeches to Goldman Sachs. Although the details leaked just a few days ago, the fact that she would not disclose anything about them was damning on its own.

Those are the messages Bernie Sanders used to come from way behind and nearly knock her off the November ballot.

But The Donald could not do that. Instead of privately fretting with aides about the media, or the bimbos, or the Mexican-American judge, those were the topics he publicly laser-focused on. Instead of apologizing sincerely for the 2005 videotape, he attacked others over it for days and ensured it remained the focus of news coverage.

Here’s how that should have gone for The Donald:

“I said some hurtful things about women for which I am not proud. It’s not the man I am. I apologize to the women I have denigrated and advise all boys and young men to take this as a lesson as how not to treat women.”

If it was brought up again, he could point to his apology and move onto healthcare for mothers. Or his plan to make the workplace equitable for all. “Because that’s how you treat women in our society.”

Instead, he denigrated women some more. Not a word on healthcare. Not a word on lowering taxes for small businesses.  He took the bait.

He took the bait when Gold Star father Khizr Khan criticized him at the Democratic National Convention. He took the bait after the first presidential debate by keeping alive the controversy over former Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado, including several middle-of-the-night tweets. He is so easy to knock off message, the disciplined Clinton campaign sets him up for it.

“The Clinton campaign could not have asked for more,” Clinton supporter David Axelrod told Politico after the first debate. “[The Clinton campaign] wanted to make this an issue and he is cooperating in that project. And I’m telling you, none of his advisers are telling him to do this. This is the way Donald Trump is. He’s very reactive. The Clinton folks figured that out, they were pushing his buttons all throughout that debate and he is still reeling from that.”

Had Trump been disciplined, he could have won the White House against a very weak Democratic opponent. He would have proven himself fit for office. Hillary Clinton should not be able to claim the mantle of the presidency. But she will. Because she ran the disciplined campaign against a candidate who could not rise above himself.

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

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