I was annoyed some years back when the film “The Dead Poets Society” won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.  How could I be an outlier by disliking such a popular movie? Well, that’s because I didn’t think it was very “original,” as the award declared. Go back if you can and look at it one more time. You may find as I did that it was little more than a pastiche of literary fragments from some of the greatest writers of all time, held together by a flimsy melodrama.

Similarly, I have endured many speeches that were also unoriginal:

  • I have heard speakers give speeches in which the main body is a published newspaper or magazine  story that is merely repeated for the audience, perhaps with just a bit of embellishment. In the end, the speaker feebly tries to tie it together with a phrase like, “Has this ever happened to you?” or “What could we learn from this?”
  • The speaker provides a commentary on a recent event that is simply a rehash of the previously published insights of other professional commentators. For example, if you are speaking about the Great Recession, are you providing your own insights or merely parroting the words of others?
  • The speaker takes a principled stand on an issue, but fails to attribute her/his supporting facts, which often are merely the opinions of others with similar opinions. Whether it is the compiled words of Rush Limbaugh on the need for a balanced budget or Al Gore on global warming, it is essentially plagiarism to use their work without attribution.

I learned this when former World Champions of Public Speaking from Toastmasters International reviewed drafts of my competitive speeches. I admit that I have my own penchant for quotations by others. (When I cannot find the words myself, theirs often sound great, and the attribution gives me credibility.) But once is enough, and they would nail me on the second citation. “You’ve already quoted someone else,” they would say. “We’re more interested in what YOU have to say!”

In the end, that is the main idea: When we are constructing a good speech, we need to exercise our own communication skills. That includes thinking through our points, constructing their logic, and then using language and oratorical skills to convey them. Repeating others is not only self-defeating, it is unethical.

It is a unique thrill to deliver a speech that informs, entertains, moves, or inspires other to action. Give yourself the pride of rightfully claiming the work as your own.