Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Orations, Etymologies and Unknown unknowns

Heads up, speechwriters!  Today we're sharing some words of wisdom on finding your own public speaking voice.

"It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know," said Thoreau.

"Exactly," replies The Eloquent Woman, "so forget Thoreau."  Sure, Churchill, Einstein and Buddha might make stellar dinner companions, but do you want to invite them all onstage with you when you give a speech?  Audiences ride roughshod over quotes they already know—if you want listeners to follow your tracks carefully, stick to your own voice and find ways to surprise them.  When selecting quotations, look to less-famous lights who will offer the audience fresh insight.  Or put a new edge on an old saw by researching what was said directly after or before a famous utterance.  We may love Mark Twain's fillip, "I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did.  I said I didn't know"—but the steamboat pilot to whom Twain was apprenticed was less amused.  Putting an old chestnut back in context enlivens your speech and gives your audience something new to think about.  Finally, The Eloquent Woman counsels, don't be shy about using your own voice.  After all, audience has come to hear you.

Speechwriter Cynthia Starks agrees, adding that presenting your real self is the best way to cure stage fright.  In her most recent blog post, Starks draws on wisdom from public speaking coach Saskia Shakin, who urges speakers to speak from the heart and tell stories that weave the facts into a larger, more meaningful pattern.  Stories give the audience something tangible to hang onto—and they help you remember why you're speaking in the first place.

In the land of grammar, a different sort of bedbug is biting The Word columnist Jan Freeman.  This epidemic isn't for entomologists but etymologists.  Spiking bedbug populations have given new life to the phrase, "Sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite"—but where does the expression come from?  It's a popular story that "sleep tight" refers to sleeping arrangements from early colonial times, when children slept in rope beds anchored beneath their parents' bed.  Freeman begs to differ, and cites evidence from the OED and other semantic sleuths who argue that the phrase derives from a Victorian bedtime rhyme, "Sleep tight, wake bright."  Bedbugs started appearing in the ditty during the late 1800s—and, unfortunately, have stuck around since.

Another invasive species is blooming in the U.S.—the terminal "s."  Are we moving "towards" good English or "backwards" away from it?  Neither, as the Columbia Journalism Review kindly explains.  That pesky "s" is imported from Britain, where it's perfectly sound English.  And though the Grammar Guards of the New York Times and Chicago University don't approve, the "s" has more or less taken root in the States.  But take note!  This flexibility applies only to some directional words ("towards," "forwards"), while "beside" and "besides" remain two different words.  Confused yet?

Finally, our politically-minded friends can add Donald Rumsfeld's memoir to their 2011 summer reading list.  The former Secretary of Defense has just announced the title of his memoir, Known and Unknown, taken from his widely debated quote about links between Saddam's regime and WMDs.  We know one thing: we're eager for those anecdotes about Elvis Presley.  How about you—are you interested in Rumsfeld's reminisces?  And, in a ghostwriterly twist on the old fantasy dinner party game, whose political memoirs would you be most excited to read?

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