Saturday, November 9, 2013

Advice to New Pro-Life Speaker [SK]

Short version of my advice:

First, grab the attention of your audience with a compelling introduction. Second, announce the topic of your talk. Third, tell your listeners why your topic matters. Fourth, announce your thesis and mention the main points you will cover supporting it. Move through these initial steps quickly to keep listeners riveted to the content. 

Longer version (edited letter--name changed):

Hi Bill,

Lots to like here. Your passion for the pro-life issue is incredible and comes through well on the recording. After listening to so many dull speakers, you are a breath of fresh air. Thank you for taking your subject seriously. Both in your speaking and writing, you convey a mastery of the issue from an intellectual standpoint, and this is sorely lacking in most presentations on abortion. Nice job!

My suggestions for improvement are limited to two main points that you'll have no trouble implementing:

Point #1—Talk less about yourself and more about why what you have to say matters to them (the listeners), especially early in the presentation

It's okay to grab their attention with an opening story (I do that), but make that story relate to them as quickly as possible. For example, listeners don't care about what you like and don't like, only why your remarks have significance for them. Right out of the gate, they must understand that what you are about to say is crucial and if they fail to listen, a price will be paid that will impact them personally. 

Back in 1996, Marc Newman gave me some advice on structuring my opening remarks that I follow religiously. First, I grab the attention of my audience with a compelling introduction. Second, I announce the topic of my talk. Third, I tell my listeners why my topic matters to them. Fourth, I announce my thesis and mention the main points I will cover supporting it. I move through these initial steps quickly to keep listeners riveted to the content. 

Let’s unpack those steps with more detail:

1. The introduction—March right in the front door of your talk with a short story or illustration that immediately draws listeners in. Put simply, you have about 90 seconds to convince the audience you are worth listening to, so make it count. Your story or illustration must relate to the content you’ll present and fit nicely with your thesis. It should also be simple. For example, you’ve heard me use an illustration from Omaha Beach—where on June 6, 1944, the first wave of Army rangers sustained horrific casualties because they dropped into deep tidewater and had few weapons with which to engage. My hunch is that you'll choose a different illustration next week, but remember this: If you think the audience won’t immediately grasp its significance, toss it for something else that is easily understood and relates better to your thesis for the night. Get after it!

2. Topic Statement—Tell listeners your theme for the evening. Make it clear and to the point: “My topic tonight is, “Equipped to Engage: Making a Case for Life on Hostile Turf.” Or, you might pose your topic as a question: “Tonight I want to ask a very specific question: How can you make a case for life when you’re under fire?” 

Note: If you are talking to a hostile or mixed audience, include a brief statement of goodwill after announcing your topic. Your combined topic and goodwill statement—aimed at setting a gracious tone for the evening—might look like this: “Tonight I’m going to address the topic, ‘The Case for Life.’ I realize abortion is a contentious issue that impacts some people personally. Rest assured, my purpose tonight is not to provoke controversy for controversy’s sake. Nor do I wish to condemn anyone. Rather, I’m just trying to get at the truth the best way I know how. So here’s what I propose. For the next 35 minutes, I’ll layout my reasons for thinking the pro-life view is persuasive. After that, I’ll open the floor for your questions and hear what you have to say. Fair enough?” That’s all there is to it. If you get too wordy here, you’ll sound apologetic or insincere, so keep your goodwill statement brief. 

3. Significance Statement—Immediately after announcing your topic, tell your listeners why it matters to them. Don’t skip this step! Envision taking your audience by the lapels and saying, “Listen to me! You must get what I’m about to tell you because if you don’t, this, this, and this will happen to you. But you can turn the tables and win if you listen up!” Following up on the example of Omaha Beach, I might say, “This topic of equipping yourself to engage on hostile turf is crucial to every Christian high school student listening to me right now. And here’s why: Seniors, in a few short months—and the rest of you, in a few short years—you will leave the safety of this Christian school and land on that beach known as the university campus. The minute that landing craft gate opens, you will find yourself confronted with ideas that run counter to everything you’ve heard about abortion. If you are not prepared, you’ll be outgunned and in way over your heads before you’ve memorized your class list.”

4. Thesis statement and rationale—Now you are ready to tell them how to engage. State in clear terms what you are going to argue: “Pro-life students can equip themselves to engage on hostile turf if they do four things: clarify the nature of moral reasoning, focus on the one question that really matters, make a persuasive case for life, and answer common objections.” 

Of course, you will want to plug in your own examples and thesis, but I think you can see how even with that minimal skeleton outline, I already have a workable structure for my talk, one that my listeners can quickly grasp. And by communicating up front what I'm going to say and why it matters to them, I draw them in. Although your talk had good ideas scattered throughout, I did not discern a visible structure on which you hung your material and made it relate to the overall thesis you were arguing. True, roughly six minutes into it, you did say that we must do something on the issue (a point you reiterated around the 15 minute mark), but then you went back to talking about yourself. A better plan is to announce your thesis early—“Anyone who believes in the humanity of the unborn and the inhumanity of abortion needs to do something”—and then immediately preview the main points you will drive home to make that case. 

In short, once you draw them in with a good intro, tell them why what you are going to say matters. Next, clearly articulate a thesis—something you will argue—then use personal stories to illustrate that thesis within the overall structure of the talk. Almost always, you should talk less about you and more about why your subject matters to them. March right in the front door and get to your point—quickly!

Point #2—and this relates to my first point—rethink using testimonies.

Truth is, I’m not a big fan of testimonies unless they are very short (3 minutes or less) and relate to the overall structure of the talk. In general, the pro-life movement spends way too much time on personal stories and not enough equipping people to argue our case. Stories appeal to some listeners, but when the evening is over, now what? How are those attending able to translate what they heard to those who don't agree with us? Answer: they're not! Rather than use a lengthy story about your personal journey to illustrate your pro-life work, let your training content and your delivery illustrate your mission/passion. Of course, you could still communicate a short personal example about your journey, but do it to help illustrate one of your main points, then move on. Short personal anecdotes work. Long testimonies are fraught with pitfalls and have limited training value.

Also, when you discuss graphic visuals, your tone should be personal, pastoral, and comforting—especially to those wounded by abortion. Speak directly to them, not about them. Give them the gospel as the antidote to post-abortion guilt. If you are showing abortion pictures (and you should), there is no need to describe the actual abortion procedures. As Gregg Cunningham points out, when you show pictures of abortion, abortion protests itself. Let the short 55-second clip do the heavy lifting for you.

Finally, if you are using your talk to invite donors to support your local pregnancy centers, you’ll want to relate your remarks to their work in a more compelling way. For example, if your topic is "Abortion and Moral Reasoning," use your significance statement to say something like this: “Some of you may think that Sharon and her staff are just about giving away baby clothes to young mothers. If you think that, you are mistaken. The stakes are way, way higher. Put simply, day in and day out, Sharon and her staff are engaged in an idea war for the hearts and minds of clients. In short, if that abortion-minded client believes that moral truth is a mere preference like choosing chocolate over vanilla, her child is in grave danger. And if she thinks that her child has no value unless she arbitrarily assigns it value, her child remains at risk. Make no mistake: These two questions—the question of truth and the question of human value—are in play in every counseling situation Sharon and her staff encounter.” Then, at the end of your talk, use the "Schindler’s List" example to encourage people to give like Oscar Schindler did. I remind them that Sharon, like Schindler, is giving her all to save lives. I end with this question: Are we taking our holocaust as seriously as Oscar Schindler took his? If so, we need to act like it and support the local pro-life pregnancy center.

All in all, this was a great start for you and lots better than my first talks. Unlike most speakers, you have all the natural gifts. Your passion is infectious. Your knowledge is stellar. The organizational and structural parts will come easy for you. Let me know if I can clarify anything further.

Glad to have you on board,

Note: updated for spelling and quote links.

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