For the right stuff, don't write to impress; write to connect

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 1, 2012 - 5:39 PM

Kelsey writes, "I'm a high school senior who has a history of struggling with writing, devoting hours upon hours to the shortest of pieces. ... As my school's valedictorian, I have the honor and burden of delivering a speech at graduation.

"The angst of writing it has far outweighed any fears of public speaking. I so desperately want my speech to be memorable, but I don't know how to transcend the meek, hackneyed and uninspired. I cannot seem to find the right tone that is neither too conversational nor too pompous. With a great respect for writers who know not only what to say but how to say it, I ask you for any help in finding the right words and putting them together eloquently."

Congratulations on being your school's valedictorian, Kelsey. Well done!

Here's my advice:

Lower your expectations - at least as you write your first draft. When I taught a dissertation support writing workshop at the University of Minnesota a few years ago, I met a student who declared, "I want to write a dissertation so brilliant my faculty adviser will envy me." That goal strikes me as a surefire formula for writer's block, or at least for forced and unnatural language. Don't write to impress; write to connect.

Start with content; revise for eloquence. After you have settled on the substance of your speech, review your word choice. Mark the ordinary words, words such as involves and false, and take another look. See if you can replace those words with less mundane words such as entails and contrived. If you don't achieve eloquence, don't worry about it. I'm confident anyone who can write "I don't know how to transcend the meek, hackneyed and uninspired" will deliver an articulate, worthwhile message.

Write from both your head and your heart. Try to offer intelligent, insightful advice, but also recognize the emotions you and your classmates will be feeling on graduation day. What's the one thing you'd like your classmates to remember about your speech after a year, a decade, a lifetime?

Include a brief anecdote or two. Readers and listeners love stories. When I visited the kindergarten class my daughter is teaching in Greeley, Colo., I noticed how her 22 jellyfish stopped squirming and listened intently whenever she told them a story, especially one about herself.

I just told you a one-sentence story. Did you like it?

Go easy on the famous quotes. But if there's a writer, poet, philosopher, artist or musician who has special significance to you and they've said something memorable that reinforces a point you're making, quote them. By the way, it's all right to quote ordinary folks, too -- your teachers, classmates or family members.

Use humor to punctuate your serious message. Self-deprecating humor is best. As a rule, if the speaker is having fun (in a modest, non-egocentric way), the audience is having fun.

Good luck, Kelsey. I know that's not your real name, but I didn't want to add any pressure. Let me know how your speech goes.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is

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