Speech Writing 101

Some years ago, I gave a talk to a regional conference of Toastmasters on the subject of speech­ writing. Since at the time, I had been a freelance speechwriter for over a decade, the organizers thought I would have a unique take on the subject.

I remember arriving at the conference to sign in, and there was an elderly gentlemen standing nearby. He had been a Toastmaster member for decades. When he heard that my topic was going to be specifically about speech writing rather than presentation issues, he gave me a bit of a disdainful look and declared how he had never written out a speech in his life and he had given hundreds of speeches. I wasn’t prepared to argue with such a distinguished gent who had that much experience under his belt, but it seemed like a strange sort of boast.

I always tell clients that no matter how they plan to deliver the final product, they should have a fully written out document if for no other reason than the speech becomes part of their company’s written history. Like that skeptical gentleman, I too have hundreds of speeches under my belt, each and every one written out word for word as I would like my clients to give them. And they begin to see the wisdom of this, particularly during rehearsal.

So what makes a good speech? What are the common threads that cause audiences to stand up and applaud at the end? Why do so few rise to that level?

It seems to me that whatever the reasons the speaker has for giving a speech – be it making a policy statement – imparting new information – talking about an internal reorganization – or speaking about the state of the nation – what they all must do at some fundamental level is engage the audience. While the propagation of information may well be a desired byproduct of a speech, remember this: engagement has a far longer half-life than information. You want the audience to associate the connection they feel with your speakers, not with the facts they are spewing out in the moment. You want the audience to remember for days after – not the specifics of the message – but who delivered the message.

Which leads to the next obvious question – just what are the elements of an engaging speech? At the risk of being dreadfully specific, I would say there are five. And the first two, you don't have much control over.

The first relates to the innate oratorical skills of your speakers. Richard Burton, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King could all have read entries from the phone book and they would have sounded good. The trouble is, most of our clients – even with the best speech coaches in the world – tend to sound wooden, flat, and monotone. As a speechwriter, you will not have direct control over the rhetorical skills of your clients. But you can help them become better speakers by the very words you choose to put in their mouths.

The next factor is the nature of the event. Some events are just fraught with expectation or emotion. Think of the post 9/11 Presidential Address to Congress. Think of eulogies in memory of a great person or the passing of a personal friend. There is, in these types of events, a built-in assumption that the listener will at least be inclined to be engaged. Even if the speech itself is less than inspiring, the speaker is forgiven because the “event” supersedes all else. But that is not the case with most speeches given at most venues. Unfortunately, speechwriters have little control over the nature of the events their speakers are attending, but there are a whole host of factors the writer should find out about the event before he or she puts pen to paper, not the least of which is audience expectations.

The third element of engagement is humor. If you can get them laughing, you have got it made. Unfortunately, it is usually easier to make an audience cry than to make them laugh. And having your audience cry is not usually regarded as the optimum outcome. Writing humor can be a terribly difficult business. Run very far if you have a client who asks that you write a speech with lots of jokes. Unless you are Jerry Seinfeld, it can't be done. But do not despair. Because the best humor – the most authentic humor – comes out of personal story.

Which leads me to the fourth element – storytelling. In almost every interaction with and among human beings, there is an element of storytelling. And speeches are no different. We all suffer from the human condition. We all have the same frailties and insecurities. When speakers reveal theirs through the medium of story, audiences recognize themselves and say, “Oh, yes – he/she is one of us. And now I trust the message, as well as the messenger.”

The final and perhaps the most powerful element of engagement is the appropriate use of language. As the writer, this is what you have most control over. I am often asked as a freelancer: “How can I write with the distinctive voice of each and every speaker, especially when I often don't get to meet a lot of my clients?” to which I reply, “I don't even try.” I write in a style that is simple – straightforward – in every person's language – meant for the ear and not the eye.

So there you have it. Assuming that your clients are not the best orators in the world, and the events they are speaking at are of the more mundane variety, then you are left with humor, language, and story. And you don't even need to have all three of those, for gosh sakes. Write a speech that makes the audience laugh a little. That draws them in with a story or two. Deliver a simple message (singular). And keep it short.

Finally, be very brave when you review the final draft with your client, and together ask yourselves, “Would we want to sit through this speech?” If the answer is yes, the chances are pretty good you will have an engaged audience who will ask your client to come back again and again.

Speech Writing Success!

Speech Writing Success! The Craft and Business of Speech Writing

Learn from speech writing expert Colin Moorhouse how you can launch a lucrative career as a highly-paid, in-demand speechwriter. Learn More »

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Published: August 5, 2011

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