How to be sharp, eloquent + witty — on command! (Highly-classified copywriting secrets, inside…)

 
 

Is anything more irresistible than a razor-sharp wit?

 
Well … maybe a razor-sharp wit paired with piercing, steel-gray eyes. (But I digress!)

I’ve always admired writers, speakers + entertainers who are able to churn out delightful bon mots, at the drop of a hat.

I aspire to be one of those people, too.

And while I’m a pretty handy wordsmith, I’m not exactly the reincarnated spirit of Oscar Wilde. (Alas!)

Still, when it comes to being sharp, eloquent + witty on command, I’ve got a couple of go-to dance moves.

If you’ve ever wondered how your favorite writers + bloggers keep words flowing like warm honey … perpetually plucking the perfect phrase out of thin air … merrily frolicking through a daisy field of dashes + quotation marks without missing a beat …

… here are a few tantalizing tricks of the trade:

 

ϟ WATCH TV (LOTS OF IT)

 
What? Yes. When I’m feeling uninspired, I saturate my brain with zippily-written TV shows — anything with exceptionally-crafted dialogue and unmistakable voices.

My current must-watch list? Mad Men, Scandal and Lost Girl.

I also fill my brain-tank with podcasts, galore — especially comedy shows with hysterical, fast-paced banter. Judge John Hodgman, My Brother, My Brother and Me and Stop Podcasting Yourself are three new favorites.

Does watching (and listening to) witty people make you wittier, too? Absolutely. Expressing yourself in a rushing waterfall of witticisms is like mastering a foreign language. And when it comes to learning new languages, experts agree that immersion is key.

 

ϟ FEED YOUR VOCABULARY

 
According to the BBC, most people know about 35,000 words. But we only use about 3,000 words on a regular basis. The rest fall into our “passive vocabulary” — inert and all-but-forgotten. Tragic!

To expand my active vocabulary, I visit Dictionary.com, Thesaurus.com and The Online Etymology Dictionary multiple times a day.

If I want to write a piece about a particular concept (say, “teaching” or “escape” or “readiness”) I almost always begin by researching the root meaning of the word — its etymological history. And the rest, as they say … is history.

 

ϟ MEMORIZE QUOTES

 
Oscar Wilde once said, “Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.”

(See what I did there?)

Being able to recite a perfectly-timed quote — correct citation and all! — is downright dashing.

An entire poem? Even better.

In my younger days, I used to write Victorian sonnets onto gigantic scrolls of butcher paper, and hang them on my bedroom walls. I’d rehearse them over + over, till I could rattle them off, at will.

A foolhardy waste of time? Perhaps.

But it did make me prrretty popular with the ladies …

 

ϟ BE CONCISE

 
“Brevity is the soul of wit,” according to some guy named William Shakespeare.

People who express themselves using the fewest possible words are often perceived as “wittier” than their verbose + long-winded contemporaries.

Fair? Just? True? Perhaps not.

But why take ten pages (or ten hours) to convey what might be expressed in a single breath?

 

ϟ USE SCRIPTS + FRAMEWORKS

 
When a jazz musician improvises a dazzling piece of music on the spot, she’s not performing in a vacuum — she’s working within the framework of the jazz tradition. Blue notes, polyrhythms, syncopation, call-and-response. There’s a method to her madness.

Writing is just the same. Most professional writers use scripts, prompts, templates and frameworks to help structure their thoughts. (Remember your sixth grade English teacher, prattling on + on about the importance of the “Five-Paragraph Essay?” She was onto something…)

I love creating scripts + frameworks for myself — and for you — because they serve as “training wheels” for witty, persuasive self-expression.

My stance? Frameworks are not “evil,” and they’re not “cheating.” They’re an efficient foundation for on-the-fly improvisation.

 

ϟ PUNS! PUNS! PUNS!

 
When I need to come up with a memorable tagline, headline or subtitle in two shakes of lamb’s tail, I leap to The Free Idiom Dictionary.

Let’s say I wanted to create a tagline for a publishing company that prints books about legal issues.

I might type “law” into The Free Idiom Dictionary, and behold! The phrase “word is law” pops up.

The tagline practically writes itself: “When it comes to publishing, our word is law.”

Presto! Puns, to the rescue!

 

ϟ PRACTICE! PRACTICE! PRACTICE!

 
To quote Stephen King: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There is no way around these two things that I am aware of, no shortcut.”

I’d estimate that I spend 35 hours a week writing — blog posts, emails-emails-emails, website content for my clients, notes + exercises for my workshops, script packs + wee-books, grocery lists, love notes, thank you cards, text messages, tweets, words-words-words up the wazoo.
 

Do anything for 5 hours a day, 7 days a week, year after year, and you’re bound to become reasonably good at it.

 
Word.

XO.


 

ϟ A FEW WIT-BUILDING RESOURCES …

 
: My girl Melissa Cassera created a new class for business owners who want to write online content that’s more addictive than a Game Of Thrones couch-marathon. (The first session just ended, so get on her waiting list for round two.)

: Sarah Von Bargen is a veritable fountain of tips ‘n advice for writers who want to be wittier. (Do not miss: How To Blog If You Don’t Like Writing.)

: Gala Darling is a digital seductress who knows how to woo + charm an audience, like no one else! Read all of her insights on storytelling + blogging.

: Susan Harrow created a free audio-class on how to speak in sound bites. (A skill I’m still striving to master!)

: Stephen Fry’s memoirs — The Fry Chronicles and Moab Is My Washpot — are basically a crash-course in world-class witticism.
Ditto for anything written by Bill Bryson.

: Last but not least: this wiki article on “How To Be Wittier” is awfully charming.

 

P.S. Who is the wittiest person you know? (Living or dead, fictional or fabulously real?)

 

Sassy photos of me by Jenn Kelly.

 
 

Comments

Elizabeth Bennet, without a doubt.

Anyone on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”–those guys and gals are sharp!

YES! That’s another one of my go-to radio shows. ;)

Alexandra Franzen on Jun 18, 2013 Reply

Lovely post, Alex. The wittier person I know is an awfully charming and quirky English friend — red hair and everything. Always on the spot, few words, perfect timing and often provoking. Absolutely delightful. And he’d like your post.

Maybe redheads are genetically predisposed to witticism? (I hope it transfers over to augmented redheads, like myself! ;)

Alexandra Franzen on Jun 18, 2013 Reply

Wittiest = brother (think Colbert + Doogie Howser)

Just wrapped up Scandal on hulu yesterday. Homework from you – check.

Question… when you spend all that time writing – do you do all computer or analog? Finding I get tired of look at a computer screen but struggle being as quick with pen and paper.

Your tips and work are incredible. xo

I almost always write on my laptop. Once in a blue moon I’ll bust out an old-school notebook, but I generally end up transferring everything onto my computer, anyway. ;)

I do have a passion for hand-written letters, though! Snail mail is NOT dead.

Alexandra Franzen on Jun 18, 2013 Reply

Einstein for sure.

Katie on Jun 18, 2013 Reply

I think stand-up comedians and comedic YouTubers have quick wits!

YES! Stand-up comedy is fascinating. I love Louis CK, Demetri Martin and Aziz Ansari — for starters.

Alexandra Franzen on Jun 18, 2013 Reply

And Chris Rock. Woo hoo!

I just saw Russel Brand on MSNBC and he was not only sharp and witty but he manage to highjack the show! Hilariously funny!

The British are more than happy for you to adopt Brand. Can’t exactly put my finger on what it is about that guy that grates.

Zollop on Dec 3, 2013 Reply

You truly exemplify the sentiment *Effervescent* dear girl.
I would also add, that ‘stealing’ from the greats (I include you in this) is THE trade secret that very few cop to. It’s perfectly legal, that is if one steals vocab and pithy bon mots, not ENTIRE paragraphs. Certain celebrities/musicians I know never cease to extol verbal gold in their interviews and being the concerned GREEN citizen that I am, I *might* take such verbal gold and spin it into something else. Great examples of artists that speak in GLORIOUS tongues are: Feist, Alanis Morissette –all Canadian and mayjah wordsmiths. I also keep my own list of ‘sayings’ and ‘vocab’ that I adore…and after years of compiling…it is pretty extensive. Every once in awhile ;) by osmosis I can come up with my own witticisms…that who knows, are ripe for the taking by a lurker or two! xo

Great post! I find that witty fast talking TV shows especially by Aaron Sorkin do the trick for me as do well-written sitcoms …

Beautiful tips my love! I’m a massive fan of anything Fey/Poehler. Also want to be re-born as Lena Dunham. And Amy Schumer makes me snort giggle.

I bet you’d loooooove Mindy Kaling, too. (You’ve read her book, right? ;)

Alexandra Franzen on Jun 19, 2013 Reply

Not sure about the wittiest person I know, but am loving Ann Charles’ Deadwood – Humorous Mystery series right now…into book four and howling out loud! Love It when a book does that to me!
And thank you…love your posts….see you in Portland!

Damn you’re good. Every time I read your posts, I remember why you’re one of 10 blogs in my RSS reader. Seriously you rock it with every single post and trust me I’ve been exposed to a ton of blogs (more than any normal human being should be in one life time).

Ha! I’m honored. Be careful — overexposure to blogs can be fatal! ;)

Alexandra Franzen on Jun 19, 2013 Reply

Well there are many witty people I know of, but right now Jeremy Paxman is coming to my mind.He’s a British writer and news show host. His book, Political Animal, is simply hilarious and so insightful. It’s my favorite book on politics.

I also second the previous commenter here who mentioned Russell Brand. He’s a great writer and surprisingly sharp.

Ashley Harvard on Jun 19, 2013 Reply

brilliant. I love Bill Bryson too – total genius!

Lately, I’ve been drowning myself in reruns of the West Wing. Aaron Sorkin is one of my all-time favorite writers. Smart. Funny. And yes, tres witty. But he also knows how to create characters you want to hang out with for the rest of your life.

Thank you for the wealth of resources in this post. And thank you for being such an inspiration.

I love your work Alexandra, big fan. For witty types – Graham Norton. I wish I had a pocket-sized toy so I could carry him around.

Gord Downie, frontman of the band The Tragically Hip, and solo artist (read: poet of our time). You might enjoy how clearly Canadian he is.
Thank you for bringing it up & giving us this list! You rock.

Laughing at the “watch tv” tip but it’s so true! Shows with good writing are my equivalent of “word porn”. I started watching “West Wing” on Netflix – so good, so witty, so quick!!

And yes to butcher paper! My walls are lined in my office. Doodle, draw, capture, create!

You had me at ‘puns’. Nothing is funnier (or sexier) than the everyday conversation magic of quickly fired situational wit.

Did you keep a straight face as you recited these sonnets? Sounds intense :)

I totally kept a straight face. Except for one time, when I completely blanked out and forgot my next line, mid-sonnet. Then I yelled out an unmentionable expletive, in frustration. And then started giggling. ;)

Alexandra Franzen on Jun 20, 2013 Reply

Cute! I’m sure you were very charming :)

I am loathe to his stinky-pirate-hooker attire, but Russel Brand is a master at bringing the funnay. Kind of like Shakespeare meets a kindergartner. Sort of.

There’s a British comedian called Russell Kane (he won the Big Edinburgh Comedy Award recently), who is quicker than anyone I’ve ever encountered. His mind is amazing and he has me crying laughing throughout his interviews (and shows).

I found having a long distance romance with someone funny was a great way to polish my wit, as I spent all day every day trying to come up with hi-LAR-ious things to impress the swoon with. Luckily, moving across the ocean (and the resulting proximity) hasn’t dampened it

Brilliant blog, full of great ideas, thank you.
Also: “prrretty popular” made me laugh out loud.

Billie Joe Armstrong, without a doubt

Cris on Oct 28, 2013 Reply

Wait, I must speak of my wit –
That I whet as one would a sword
I slay with mirth – Alas!
I am so cursed at birth
For it is what I am loved for-
And for that alone, abhorred!

Param on Apr 18, 2014 Reply

Jack Sparrow by far. Savvy?

Sarah on May 26, 2014 Reply

Oscar wilde, all time favorite.
Very lovely post! Will definitely take some of the tips here :)

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