Bullet 24

The “Borden Formula”
for Giving a Great Speech
…or Writing a Potent Headline

Dear Marketing Top Gun:

I’m sure you’ve heard about the surveys showing that more people are afraid of giving a speech than dying.

Perhaps most dreaded of all is dying while giving a speech! But that will never happen to you if you remember this Bullet.

In four easy steps, it will teach you how to craft a powerful speech on any topic, a talk your listeners will enjoy and respond to favorably. As an extra bonus, this method will also help you to write a winning headline whenever you need one.

This four-step formula was created by Richard C. Borden. Many years ago, Borden was the Administrative Chairman of the Department of Public Speaking at New York University. He was also one of the nation’s most popular speakers and sales trainers, as well as an author of books on selling and public speaking.

To give a great speech, Borden recommends that you imagine your audience shouting out these four emotional outbursts as you give your talk (this will become clear in a minute)…

  1. “Ho hum!”
  2. “Why bring that up!”
  3. “For instance?”
  4. “So what?”

Let’s see how this works in practice . . .

Let’s imagine that you must give a speech or important presentation. You are dreading it, but there’s no escape. So you enroll in a course that teaches the Borden method. At your weekly classes, you practice by standing before the group and giving talks on various subjects assigned to you.

Each time you do, as you take your place at the front of the room, on cue the entire class shouts at you, at the top of their lungs, “Ho hum!”

If you were nervous before standing up to speak, hearing this thundering “Ho hum!” hurled at you by forty to fifty bored people will instantly turn you into a quivering mass of jelly.

But the experience teaches two valuable lessons . . .

First, you learn—in your gut, as only actual experience can teach—this truism of life: Fear is a cowardly bully. Stand up to it, and it runs.

Second, this experience indelibly stamps in your awareness the most critical principle of giving an effective speech: Your opening must electrify your audience, shake them awake, or, as we Borden students like to put it, “crash the ho-hum barrier.”

In his book, Public Speaking as Listeners Like It! Borden gives this example. Let’s say you’ve been asked to speak on traffic safety.

Don’t start out with . . .

“The subject which has been assigned me is the reduction of traffic accidents.” Ho-hum indeed!

How much more interesting to start your speech with . . .

“Four hundred and fifty shiny new coffins were delivered to the city last Thursday.”

That’s a grabber that will instantly interest your audience as they wonder, “Why?”

* * *

OK, so let’s say you’ve got an interesting opening sentence that survives the “Ho hum!” challenge. You’re just getting started in the Borden torture chamber!

Next, the entire class shouts at you, “Why bring that up?” which is your invitation to expand upon your attention-getting opener.

Next, the class shouts, “For instance?” demanding at least one specific, persuasive example of the point you’re making.

Finally, the class screams, “So what?”—what do you recommend we do about this?

Let’s see an excellent example provided by one of the greatest copywriters who ever lived, Bruce Barton, cofounder of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO), a leading Madison Avenue ad agency where I used to work alongside John Caples. (That name, by the way—Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn—was once described by an advertising wag as sounding “like a man with a suitcase falling down a flight of stairs.” I love that description!)

Here is an example from a talk by Bruce Barton that Borden cites in his book. Barton was a firm believer in self-improvement, and in this talk he was urging a group of young men to make more productive use of their spare time. (Though they were not part of Barton’s talk, I’ll overlay the four Borden questions at the right places to show, as Borden did in his book, how well Bruce Barton’s talk illustrates the Borden method.)

1. Ho Hum!

Barton begins his talk with an intriguing observation about the potential value of spare time…

“Last month a man in Chicago refused a million dollars for an invention he had evolved in his spare time.”

2.Why Bring That Up!

“You are interested in this because it confronts you with the possibilities of your spare time. Did you ever stop to think that most of the world’s great men have achieved their true life work, not in the course of their needful occupations, but—in their spare time?

3. For Instance?

“A tired-out rail-splitter crouched over his tattered books by candlelight or by fire-glow, at the day’s end; preparing for his future, instead of snoring or skylarking like his co-laborers. Abraham Lincoln cut out his path to later immortality—in his spare time.

“An underpaid and overworked telegraph clerk stole hours from sleep or from play, at night, trying to crystallize into realities certain fantastic dreams in which he had faith. Today the whole world is benefiting by what Edison did—in his spare time.

“A down-at-heel instructor in an obscure college varied the drudgery he hated by spending his evenings and holidays in tinkering with a queer device of his, at which his fellow teachers laughed. But he invented the telephone —in his spare time.

4. So What?

“Gentlemen, you, too, have spare time. The man who says: ‘I would do such and such a great thing, if only I had time!’ would do nothing if he had all the time on the calendar. There is always time—spare time—at the disposal of every human who has the energy to use it. Use it!”

* * *

In your spare time, Top Gun, I urge you to practice using this simple four-step Borden formula whenever you prepare your emails, memos, or presentations. It will work wonders in making you more persuasive.

It can also help you write a great headline for an ad or direct mail package.

I use many tests to measure the strength of a headline before I’m happy with it. And I usually write 30 to 50 headlines before I pick the best.

Several of my headline tests are quite advanced and would require more space and illustration than I can provide here. But Borden’s step #1 is an excellent starting point: Does your headline crash the ho-hum barrier?

When judging headlines that my clients have asked me to critique over the years, I would often explain my “shake-me-awake-at-three-a.m.” test, which is the same as Borden’s step #1. If you were to shake me awake at three in the morning and read me your headline, would I care? Would it address a concern of such urgency that I’d immediately blink my eyes awake and want to know more? Or would I beg you to let me go back to sleep?

Open any magazine or newspaper and apply this “shake-me-awake-at-three-a.m.” test to the headlines atop the ads, and you’ll see that most fail miserably. Even headlines by good direct marketing writers often fail this test.

“But is that really a fair test?” a wounded copywriter may ask. “People will be reading my headline while fully awake. Why insist that it be compelling to someone who’s just been shaken awake at three a.m.?”

The truth is, most of us are asleep—sleepwalking through our days, deeply absorbed in the ceaseless chatter of our own minds.

So, yes, your headline most definitely has to shake your prospects awake, crash the ho-hum barrier, and electrify them with interest!

Your headline must be so compelling because, as David Ogilvy said, “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written the headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar. If you haven’t done some selling in your headline, you have wasted 80 percent of your client’s money.”

Your headline must be so arresting because, as John Caples said, “In a print ad, 75 percent of the buying decisions are made at the headline alone.”

So go forth, Top Gun, and in every talk you ever give, in every headline you ever write, electrify them with interest. Crash the ho-hum barrier!

Sincere wishes for a good life
and (always!) higher response,
Gary Bencivenga Signature

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