Tips for writing speeches that speak to people…
By Jack Thomas
Know your speaker. Interests? Values? Background? Education? Strengths? Weaknesses? Prejudices? Remember, you are writing a speech for your client, not for you or for George C. Scott. If you’re writing for yourself, step back and look at yourself as through you were another person and ask the same questions you would ask a client. The only way you can write well for yourself is to know yourself well. Write for yourself as you are, not as you would like to be. Standing in front of several hundred people who are looking to you to entertain and inform them is not the time to try out a new personality.
Know the audience. Use a questionnaire. Ask the same questions you ask about your speaker and any others that seem pertinent. Too much information is better than too little. How old is the organization? What is its purpose? What has it achieved lately? Any famous members? What is the gender mix? Get your contact to talk, and then just listen without interrupting. If the contact pauses, just wait a moment or two and he/she likely will feel compelled to fill the void with words. That failing, give a gentle prompt, such as, “Tell me more. This is very interesting.”
Help the speaker choose a topic. Focus on a main topic. Instead of “How to Solve the World’s Economic Problems,” you might choose “Attracting New Jobs to River City.” Make sure it is a subject that is of interest to the audience.
Get the speaker’s ideas on tape. Transcribe the salient points. Listen to how your client speaks. Remember the words and phrases used. Make the speech sound polished, but authentic. You would not write the same speech for George W. Bush that you would write for Hillary Clinton. Many powerful leaders are not students of language and might even have fairly limited vocabularies. Note any words and phrases your speaker might stumble over and avoid them. One mispronounced word can spoil a whole presentation and seriously detract from a speaker’s credibility – as well as that of the speechwriter who put it in the speech!
If time permits, think about the project for a little while, make some preliminary notes, and then submit it to your subconscious mind for more inspiration. Keep a notebook and/or recorder with you and record ideas as they come to you. Unless you capture a great idea right away, it is likely that you will forget it. No doubt, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” was scribbled on a napkin long before it was carved into marble.
Write a first draft. Remember to write talking; don’t write writing. Use contractions. For the most part, keep sentences short. Keep in mind that your first obligation is to be interesting – to entertain. If your speech does not entertain the audience, then it will not have an opportunity to inform or persuade them. To communicate ideas, a speech must get and keep the audience’s attention. Let the words flow like music – long passages punctuated with one or more strong, short sentences. Say it. Stop. Pause. Sometimes a pause says more than the words that precede it. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone…..”
Find quotations that support your points, but avoid packing the speech with what other people have to say. Let your speaker be the expert. Let what he says be quotable! Use figures of speech – metaphors and similes – to persuade. Old ones still work: “A stitch in time saves nine.” Remember, your speaker is much stronger and much more convincing when he says “This is war” than if he says, “In my humble opinion, this could very well turn out to be war.”
Make the first three minutes of the speech riveting. Connect with the audience. Let your speaker show how he is one of them, how he thinks the way they do, how he appreciates them, etc. Use jokes judiciously. A joke that is poorly delivered and/or received can eradicate the audience’s respect, shake the speaker’s confidence, and trash the whole speech. Effective humor, on the other hand, can encourage the audience to be forgiving of other deficiencies in a presentation. In today’s “PC” climate, however, about the only person it’s safe to make fun of is yourself! Be careful.
Read and time the speech. Unless longer speeches are requested, as at an educational conference, club speeches should be no more than 15-20 minutes with a 10-minute Q&A session. As someone once said, “There’s no such thing as a bad 15-minute speech.” It would also be hard to find a really great two-hour monologue.
Double-space the speech and print it out in 14-16 pt. bold type. Be sure to number the pages. (Nervous speakers sometimes drop their script!)
Give the speech a final double check. Read once for content and flow. Read again for grammar and accuracy of facts. You cannot totally trust your spellchecker! “Home Depot” can come out as “Home Deport” and not be caught. I learned that one from personal experience!
If time permits, leave the speech alone for a couple of days and then check it over again. After it gets slightly cold (not stone cold!), it’s easy to catch mistakes that you missed before. Be stingy with your new ideas, though, whether they come from you or your client. Trying to infuse a lot of last-minute material into a speech can distort the natural flow of ideas and detract from the speech’s overall effectiveness. The ideas in a speech are like marbles in a jar: move one of them and they all shift. Typically, the final arrangement of a “chopped-up” speech is stilted and difficult to deliver effectively. If possible, persuade your client to “let well enough alone.”
Use the Internet! Using a good search engine, such as Google, you can find tons of tips for writing effective speeches. The “World Wide Web” is an indispensable tool for today’s speechwriter, providing instant research data, relevant quotations, and other information that once would have been impossible to acquire, even with days of searching. Once you zero in on a topic, search the Net to see what others are saying about it. Then give your client a speech that is up-to-date, accurate, and interesting.
Fees? What you can charge for a speech depends upon your client’s status and resources and your own professional reputation. A local politician might balk at having to pay $100 for a speech by a novice local writer, while a Fortune 500 CEO might think nothing of paying $5,000 for a persuasive speech by a top professional whose work is known and respected.