The social speech: How your friends and followers can help you write your next presentation

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Speechwriting is a notoriously solitary profession. You might have a few conversations with a client, their staff or — if you're writing for yourself — a mirror. But a lot of your work is going to be just you, a keyboard and the unforgiving blank screen.

At least, that used to be the case. But when you're crafting a social speech, speechwriting can be a team activity. And even though you still have to do the actual writing, you can draw on the ideas, experience and ingenuity of a large networked audience.

You may feel a little hesitant about asking your network for help, especially out in the open: aren't you supposed to be the expert? But even experts have to do research. When you ask for suggestions or ideas, you're acknowledging the collective knowledge, experience and expertise of your friends, fans and followers, and inviting them to make a contribution. That's not admitting a weakness; it's paying a compliment.

Here are five ways to bring your network in on the act the next time you're working on a speech:

  • Crowdsourcing: Find yourself falling back on the same old examples and cases? Shake things up by asking your network for their favourites. A tweet like "Speaking to HR conference tomorrow - what are your favorite examples of innovative recruiting? #HRINS11" can help you add a few new arrows to your quiver — for this speech, and future ones.
  • Storytelling: It's one thing to set out an argument and back it up with statistics. It's another — and a whole different level of emotional resonance — to illustrate that argument with a real-world story, attached to an actual human being. Ask your followers for their personal experience, and you can find some remarkable stories to share with your audience (with permission, of course). And if you want to go that extra mile, and you have a willing friend with a terrific story, a webcam clip can dramatically boost its impact.
  • Media: Flickr's Creative Commons archive and iStockPhoto can get you some great images. But many of your network members' hard drives are packed to the gills with their own photos and videos, some of them quite compelling. Put out a call for a specific image ("I'm looking for a photo of a really beat-up old car for my next presentation") and you may well get just what you're looking for. Alternately, you could consider having a series of related images — people making angry faces, beautiful shots of waterfalls, screenshots of error messages — and turn them into a mosaic or mini-slideshow that reinforces a particular theme in your speech. (Just do your due diligence about usage rights. Make sure the contributor is also the creator, and consider privacy issues around any identifiable individuals.)
  • Brainstorming: Want to see how an idea or a line of reasoning flies with people? Posting it and asking for feedback (or, if you're up for it, pushback) can help you sharpen your thinking. You may get some encouragement and validation — or maybe you'll hear an unexpected point of view that leads you to revise your approach. (Inviting perspectives from outside your organization and your usual circle can be a great way to break out of groupthink.) And even if you don't change your mind, you'll have a better idea of some of the objections your audience might raise... objections that you can address during your speech.
  • Polling: A service like PollDaddy, GoPollGo or Facebook Questions lets you create multiple-choice polls to unleash on your networks. Don't go looking to draw any valid statistical inferences from the results... but if you're looking for a general expression of sentiment, you'll be able to tell your audience things like "More than three-quarters of the people I asked in a Twitter poll said they feel extremely swamped by email... and not one said they felt like they were on top of it."

You can turn to a wide range of online services for inviting collaboration and soliciting contributions. Twitter is great for short questions and answers (if you're asking people to share links, for instance). LinkedIn Answers lets you reach out to your professional network. Your profile or page on Facebook or Google+ can serve as a more conversational venue for longer contributions. A Google or Wufoo form can allow people to submit structured responses (the tradeoff being a slightly higher barrier to participation and a much less social experience). And if you have the viewership or readership to reach the right crowd, your blog or YouTube page can be an even more targeted, effective way of connecting with people.

It can't just be one-way, of course, with your friends and followers giving and you taking. You need to thank your network members for their help, and encourage them to be there for you in your next speech:

  • Immediate thanks: Reply to everyone, if that's even remotely feasible. If you've been deluged, then you might have to consider a group thanks — but most of us should be so lucky.
  • Credit where it's due: If you're using someone's personal story, you want to attribute it to them (after confirming they don't mind). And you should consider crediting somebody who's provided an especially remarkable piece of information. Letting them know you gave them a shout-out in your speech is a great way to thank them.
  • Credit where it's due, part 2: If you've used a photo or video clip in your presentation, you'll definitely want to add a credit on-screen. Ask the contributor how they'd like to be credited – and keep the typeface readably large (without detracting from the image itself). If you've created a mosaic or a mini-slideshow, consider adding a credit slide at the end of your presentation.
  • Thanks afterward: A post-speech blog post or webcam video is your chance to thank everyone who contributed, and single out the folks you leaned on particularly heavily. And not just by name; linking to their online presence of choice is the sincerest form of gratitude.
  • Continued engagement: Now that they've contributed to your speech, your network members are going to feel vested in its outcome, and in your future presentations. Keep reaching out conversationally, even when you don't have a speech on the horizon, and reciprocate in kind. You're starting to build a more engaged, more committed following — one you'll want to devote some genuine attention to.

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