What speechwriters can learn from photography

An emotional picture is worth 1,000 cold facts


Years ago, before I moved into the print world as a journalist and then a speechwriter, I was a photographer. I shot for a local paper and thought perhaps that’s where my future was. Then I discovered I was a better writer than I was a photographer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The industry now refers to me as a serious amateur, which means I shoot a lot. (This fall, I’m shooting a lot of football and clicking away upward of 1,700 shots a week, for instance.) It also means I try to pay attention to what’s happening in the photo world.

Rarely do the worlds of photography and speechwriting mix. That’s why I was so pleased when I recently heard a photographer—on the radio—talk about a subject that resonated deeply with me as a speechwriter.

The story was on NPR’s All Things Considered. Michele Norris was interviewing Steve Liss, a project director for Americanpoverty.org, which is a collection of photographers who are trying to capture the face of poverty in America today. ( Link to the interview transcript .)

Norris asked what role photography played in getting this story in front of people.

The photographer being interviewed said something every speechwriter should hear. “The fact of the matter is,” Liss said, “anecdote trumps facts every time.”

There’s a big, big lesson for us here. Aristotle points out that persuasive communications requires three things: logic, character, and emotion. We’re all familiar with logic. It’s the basic bread and butter of most speeches—those facts and stats that get plugged in as proof points.

Character is what our speakers take to the podium with them. We can enhance it by making sure the introduction is right, he/she is quoting the right people, the facts and stats and sources we use are credible.

But emotion is the real kicker here. It’s what the AmericanPoverty.org campaign uses.

Despite what we might want to believe, we’re all creatures of emotions. It’s why television commercials asking for asking for aid money for natural disasters use images of destruction and despair. They hit in places that logic can’t touch.

Too many speakers believe if they just explain the situation in a cool and reasoned way, the audience will “get it.” But if you really want to connect with an audience, use emotional devices. The best way to do that is by telling stories and using anecdotes.

More than any other devices, stories and anecdotes deliver the emotional appeal that audiences respond to. Stories bring material to life and have an aura of truth about them.

They let audience members place themselves inside the story, relate it to events in their own lives, and compare it to something personal to them. And they let listeners reach their own conclusions about the facts by putting abstract, logical data into context.

This is one reason why PowerPoint presentations—by themselves—are generally so crappy. Most of the time they lack emotion. We fill slide after slide with data but forget that it’s stories people long to hear and stories that people respond to.

It’s why Michele Bachman used the story of the woman who supposedly claimed her daughter was mentally impaired because of the HPV vaccine. It was an incredibly powerful story—more powerful than facts alone—and could have won the day for her, especially if the media had been able to verify it.

So the next time you need to persuade an audience, think about photography and work to get a mental image into the audience’s mind. Logic is great. Character is a prerequisite. But you really need emotion to make an impact.

Because I used one great Greek earlier, let me end with another. Archimedes once said, “Give me a place to stand—and a fulcrum—and I can move the world.”

Emotion is the fulcrum.

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