Author Stephen King knows a thing or two about writing, and he has generously shared some of his tips with the world. Bill Lampton explains what speakers can learn from his advice as well.
Here’s good news: Stephen King, one of the world’s most widely read authors, has shared his favorite tips about writing, rather than hoarding them so his competition couldn’t use them. And here’s more good news: speakers too will benefit greatly when they apply his writing advice to their speech preparation and delivery. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since both authors and speakers depend heavily on language mastery. Specifically, note how these three “King-isms” apply to speaking.
FIRST: Realize that you may not succeed at first
As a beginning writer, King’s manuscripts prompted many editors to reject his submissions. At first he began saving them on a nail driven into the wall of an upstairs room. Eventually, the “no thank you” letters overflowed the space on the nail, so King started putting them on a large spike. Two laborious years later, he got his first scribbled note of encouragement from an editor: “This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again”—which he did do, repeatedly. His millions of readers are grateful he didn’t let early failures kill his career at the outset.
In the speaking arena, Mark Twain became one of the first authors to capitalize on his fame by becoming a well-paid professional speaker. Yet his first attempts were embarrassing flops. On October 2, 1866, he stood on the Academy of Music stage in San Francisco. His biographer described Twain as “trembling with terror, frozen in place for a full minute.” Fortunately, he “gained control of himself” and launched his career as a popular lecturer.
So if your first attempts at facing audiences disappointed you, keep in mind that every highly capable speaker has come a long way from his or her starting point.
SECOND: Use simple language
King commented, “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes.” He added that one of the “really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.”
Novice speakers often assume they need to demonstrate their advanced level of higher education to their audiences, so they sprinkle fancy words throughout their speeches. However, they would be more likely to attract and keep attention by replacing the complex, unfamiliar words with words that are simple and clear. Replace “heretofore” with “from now on,” and replace “penultimate” with “next to last.”
When you give a speech, use the same unadorned vocabulary you use in ordinary conversation. Consider your speech nothing grander than an enlarged conversation with multiple individuals.
THIRD: Eliminate worn out words and phrases
Stephen King had no trouble compiling a list of words he considered overworked, and therefore without impact. “I believe that anyone using the phrase “That’s so cool” should have to stand in the corner and that those using the far more odious phrases ‘at this point in time’ and ‘at the end of the day’ should be sent to bed without supper.”
Speakers will be wise to make a list of words audiences don’t want to hear again. Examples: closure, step up to the plate, think outside the box, get ahead of the pack, in my humble opinion, hear me out on this point, pushing the envelope, like a stuck record, turn on a dime, spread like wildfire, get the show on the road, being on the same page, upset the apple cart, throw out the baby with the bath—and many more.
In summary, Stephen King’s coaching for writers and speakers includes these key approaches: stay determined regardless of early failures, don’t use long words when short ones will get the point across, and get rid of stale language that bores and offends listeners.