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  • Holly Blum, The Word Whisperer

Why Summer Letter Writing Is A Lot Like Speech Writing

For me, summer has always been about letter writing. As a sleep-away camper and then counselor from the age of 8 to 18, I would look forward to rest time when I could tell my family and friends about all the fun I was having. Most of my letters to my parents included long lists of everything I needed at camp—of course, Aquanet hairspray, Vuarnet sunglasses and an extra Benetton rugby were always on the list. And then there was my favorite time of day—mail call! I savored every letter I got, every meal my Mom wrote about and every beach outing my Dad recounted. Mind you, this was long before the days of email.

This week, both of my daughters left for sleep-away camp. Yes, I am excited for all the new adventures and friendships they will experience. But I am even more excited to send and receive letters. For within these letters, I am able to fill my children in on the details from home while letting them know that their presence is missed. And they are forced to write to me in great detail (we only get two phone calls per summer), recounting all of the vivid details of camp life.

An actual letter I wrote to my parents in the mid-1980s.

Good thing my writing has evolved over time.

With letter writing season in full swing, I started thinking about how much letter writing and speech writing have in common. Here’s my take:

1. You need to start somewhere. The typical opening, Dear _______ is still perfectly acceptable. I usually throw in a nickname or “How’s my favorite camper?” to grab their attention. Similarly, when opening a speech, you need a starting point. Whether it’s introducing yourself or expressing your joy at being part of the celebration, the opening should be short and to the point. Just don’t start your speech saying, “For those you who don’t know me, I’m ______ .” Trust me, the majority of the people will know who you are.

2. It’s meant to be conversational. Unless you’re writing a business letter, social correspondence is meant to be fun and conversational. Flowery prose is not needed, although details are welcome. Write letters as though you are mimicking a conversation with the other person. Letters shouldn’t be one-sided. Ask questions to show that you are interested in what they have to write back. When writing a speech, think of it as having a polished conversation. Don’t shy away from jargon and expressions. One of the most important things is that the speech reflects who you are as a person. Of course, censor any inappropriate words, but let your personality shine through your word selection.

3. You need a hook. What information in your letter will capture the reader’s attention and be truly memorable? Probably not what you ate for breakfast. I include a “joke of the day” in all the letters I write to my kids. They look forward to them and then share them with their friends and counselors. Including something meaningful and relevant holds true for speechwriting as well. Challenge yourself to think about the stories and memories that will resonate with the crowd. Make sure to clearly explain your hook and look for creative ways to weave it throughout the course of the speech.

4. Think about your signature. Everyone has a unique signature, and it’s not necessarily the literal way you sign your name. For example, I typically sign letters to my kids “Love and kisses, Mommy.” And I typically end the note with a catchphrase like “Keep smiling.” With speeches, incorporating your signature style throughout the speech, and particularly at the end, is critical. Think about how you can wrap up your speech beyond just saying “cheers.” Embrace this opportunity to end the sentiment on a high note. Bonus points for creativity, of course.

5. Leave them wanting more, not less. When writing letters, it’s tempting to recall the ins and outs of daily life, but sharing too much detail can quickly become boring for the reader. The trick is to write just enough that the person understands what is being communicated, but has room to wonder or imagine the rest of the details. The same rule applies to speechwriting. Keeping speeches short and sheet is perhaps the most important rule of thumb. Unless you’re delivering a keynote address, after five minutes, people aren’t interested in listening to you anymore, no matter how dynamic of a speaker you are. If you wrap up at the three to five minute mark, chances are you will leave the audience wanting more.

Next time you have the opportunity to write a letter do it. It’s a perfect way to let someone know how you feel without the added pressure of a face-to-face interaction. Once you flex your letter writing muscle, you may be surprised at how easily the words flow when it comes time to deliver an actual speech. In both cases, if you’re anything like me, you will recognize the power of words and make them work for you.

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