Monday, November 19, 2012

Lessons on Writing from the World's Champion Speaker

Ryan Avery, the 2012 International Public Speaking Champion, has a lot to say about being a professional writer. I know, I heard him say it two weeks ago in Hickory, NC. The fact he didn't say a single word about writing is beside the point.

I'm willing to bet some of you had no idea there was an International Public Speaking Champion. The championship is sponsored by Toastmasters International. Every year up to thirty thousand people in 116 countries enter local Toastmaster competitions with at least some idea of making it to the international bout. Contenders are winnowed out through a series of local, division, district, regional, and national contests until there are only ten. These finalists go head to head at Toastmasters International's annual convention, which in 2012 was held during the second full week of August in Orlando, Florida.

At twenty-five Avery is the youngest person ever to win an International Championship. Not that he's all talk. At twenty-five he is also the Oregon state director of Special Olympics, has degrees in anthropology and journalism, and is beginning graduate work in strategic communication. (I suspect becoming International Public Speaking Champion of 2012 is just one cobblestone in the road he's building.)

This is a YouTube video Ryan Avery made when he set his sights on winning the international championship. Before he'd won his first local competition. Watching it is interesting, but you can learn a lot that's relevant to writing just by looking at the still.
First thing you notice is that the video exists. Avery made a firm public commitment to his objective. He told everyone he knew - and a lot more people he didn't know - exactly what he was doing. He didn't bore them with excerpts from, iterations of, or musings about his speech. He just made sure he was accountable to as many people as possible.
The second thing you'll notice is that his wife let him nail six whiteboards to their living room wall. This tells us his personal support team of one believed in his sincerity and determination; whether she thought he could actually pull it off is something she kept to herself.

Writing, serious writing, requires self-discipline and constancy – it's too easy to goof off or get distracted or do any of a hundred things besides work. Other people in our lives, those close to us, usually don't take our writing seriously until they've spent some weeks or months watching us take it seriously. Avery's wife took his objective seriously because she'd already seen him demonstrate the requisite commitment in earning his two degrees and working with Special Olympics.

Avery's objective is posted in the center of the whiteboards and over the next several weeks he filled the areas around his goal with things and ideas relevant to that objective. He studied videos of past finalists and read transcripts of their speeches. He studied the structure of the speeches and looked at the subject matter. He learned male contestants wore dark suits. More importantly, he learned that winning speeches had 600-650 words, were delivered in just under seven minutes, and shared a three-step structure; averaging fifteen to twenty 'laugh points' – moments of humor – each.

In other words, Avery discovered all he could about his target market, figured out their needs and preferences, and determined what he'd have to do to deliver a product they'd buy. Which is what a professional writer should be doing as a matter of course. Don't send a story to Analog or Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine if you don't read either; submitting a story to a market you haven't researched is a waste of your time and theirs. If you have researched a market you want to break into, say the New Yorker, and discovered you don't write the sort of story they buy, you need to decide whether you want to write their way or set them aside and look for another market.
That last bit was the problem Avery faced. He freely admits he is not good with humor, at least not the kind used in the winning speeches. But changing markets wasn't an option; he would have to learn how to be funny.

Until you start looking for them, you don't realize how many Toastmasters clubs there are in the world, most towns of any size will have at least one and cities usually have several. Avery has a pretty good idea how many are in Oregon. He traveled the state, visiting as many as four Toastmasters clubs a week, trying out variations of his speech in front of as many strangers as he could find. His videoed each outing and asked his listeners to be brutally honest, and listened to what they had to say (he reports many said he'd never be funny). He didn't take everything his many audiences said as gospel – a lot of them contradicted each other – but he paid attention and made what adjustments he felt were valid.
Writers often undervalue practice; we want everything we write to sell, to reach as many readers as possible. We like to pretend we don't know we need to write new things, work to develop new skills, even if no one else will ever see our efforts. We need to pay attention to what trusted readers, colleagues, and especially editors say about our work. Don't rewrite – unless an editor makes it a condition of sale – but take note of things to think about and watch for in future projects.

I do want you to take seven minutes and look at the YouTube of Ryan Avery's winning speech. Note the structure of the story. Note how he uses all senses – even the taste of Cheetos – to give each scene impact. See how he employed imagery his audience – at a convention in central Florida during the hottest days of sumer – could identify with, sweating in a hot suit and the jarring sound of a hotel alarm clock. Also note that he recognized the tradition – not requirement – of wearing dark suit was a convention that didn't serve the story or his objective; he wore a green suit in order to stand out.

But also note something else, something that's apparent only in two moments toward the end. He told those of us listening to him in Hickory that the hardest line for him to deliver was "when her curls turn grey." He cried when he wrote it and he almost cries every time he says it. That's the first thing. The second is the last line. Whenever he speaks his wife always sits so they can see each other; he always makes eye contact and he always says the last line directly to her. We were in a small room in Hickory, and I could see both of them legitimately mist up at his last words. Because despite all his artifice, despite all his carefully calculated pauses and inflections, despite the comic mannerisms he forced himself to master, despite his green suit, what drives Ryan Avery's speech – what gives his words their power – is his heart.

Do I really need to explain what that has to do with good writing?


Tammy Theriault said...

great videos!

new follower... hi!

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts-- so glad you shared.

AveryToday said...

Great article KeVin. Thank you for sharing my story. It is a wonderful tie in with writing and I feel inspired to write my first book! Just shared it on my twitter @AveryToday account!

Charles Gramlich said...

Constancy! something I've been sorely lacking of late.

Charles Gramlich said...

Constancy! something I've been sorely lacking of late.

Jane Turley said...

An very interesting article indeed and one has to admire Ryan's determination and his ability to learn which are good lessons for us all. I didn't personally enjoy his speech though!(Could be because I'm a Brit.) It felt far too staged to me which, perhaps, illustrates the tremendous talents it takes to be a stand up comedian or a natural born orator. I'd also be interested to know whether he analysed the statistics on whether he should wear his glasses or not as I felt these created a barrier between him and the audience. Even better I'd like to see him do it after a couple of drinks - I think he would have been much better!! Ryan obviously has a very bright future ahead though:one to watch.

KeVin K. said...

Jane - Ryan is about 6'6" and 150 lbs soaking wet, all knees and elbows, and has the air of one trying not to knock over a lamp in most situations. That accent he used for his mother, the one that sounds southern if you're not from the south? Texas twang. Though he's good at not using it on stage it's his native tongue; and you can hear him working to lose it in conversation. All of which is to say that your observations are on point and that he's a work in progress.

Charles - You and me both.

Ryan - Glad you liked it, and thanks for the tweet. And let me know if you get serious about that book.

Julie - Thank you.

Tammy - Thanks and welcome aboard.

Liane Spicer said...

Wow. This article made me mist up at the end. Inspiring.