What speechwriters can learn from Cirque du Soleil

You needn’t perform acrobatics or pratfalls; there are less risky maneuvers that can make your presentation memorable.

Cirque du Soleil combines drama, pageantry, acrobatics and live music into a thrilling treat for the senses. But mesmerized audiences are far less aware of the role that communications plays in crafting the excitement on stage.

Take, for instance, Mystère, the Cirque du Soleil show in residence at Treasure Island in Las Vegas. In the course of every performance, acrobats, comedians, singers and musicians create an out-of-this-world experience for viewers. Underscoring the action is a solid foundation of communication crafted to keep the audience engaged and focused on the magic rather than on the technique.

Chances are you won’t be able to persuade your speaker to do a double backflip at the end of a speech. What you can do, however, is apply some lessons drawn from Mystère to write a better script.

Start charming the audience beforehand

At a Mystère performance, the action begins while the houselights are still bright. Clowns appear in the aisles, where they interact with people waiting for the show to begin. The result is laughter and applause. In a matter of minutes, the isolated groups of families, friends and couples come together as a single audience with a common purpose—to have some fun. As they do, the atmosphere in the theater warms up.

Lesson: Reaching people through a sense of community can set a friendly tone and open the minds of listeners to the presenter’s ideas. So, establish common ground with the audience early on. For example, mention a shared cause, affiliation, belief, purpose or experience. Or do as the Cirque du Soleil performers do: Inject some gentle humor to bring the audience together through laughter.

Bring listeners back to the theme

Mystère comprises a mind-boggling array of acts and activities. Trapeze artists, wirewalkers and gymnasts bedazzle the audience with amazing physical feats. Occasionally, the pace slows. As it does, the musicians play a refrain and the master of ceremonies and other now-familiar characters take center stage. This reset re-establishes the mood and brings continuity to the show.

Lesson: From time to time, bring people back to a point where they can see the big picture. Listeners have a limited capacity to absorb detail. A steady stream of facts, statistics and lists can lead to information overload. Reminding people of the main message here and there will give them context. Artful repetition of the overarching idea will also help the audience remember and retain the key point.

Smooth the flow

To stage Mystère, groups of performers discreetly move in and out of the audience’s field of vision. Their skillful, virtually undetectable entrances and exits keep patrons’ attention on the show.

Lesson: Poor transitions pull the curtain back to show the audience the rough edges of your speech. In contrast, good transitions can be a credibility builder for the speaker who uses them to move seamlessly from topic to topic. Writing smooth transitions takes time and thought. So, put real effort into developing transitions that will keep the audience focused on the message rather than on the mechanics of the speech.

Leave a strong impression

Mystère ends with an image that’s hard to forget —I won’t spoil the surprise—but as the performers disappear into the wings and the lights come up, a wondrous sight fills the stage.

Lesson: Though no rule says every speech has to end with a trumpeting call to action, the conclusion should give the audience something to think about. To create a lasting impression, ask and answer a thought-provoking question, make a vivid analogy, share a compelling statistic, or tell a story that illustrates the main point.

Finally, when you finish writing your speech take a bow—and don’t forget to wipe the greasepaint off your face.

Wendy Cherwinski is a freelance speech and presentation writer and workshop leader based in Ottawa. Read her blog, contact her by phone at 613. 746.9916 or send a message to words@echeloncomm.ca.


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