How to Write a Speech to Motivate People

How to Write a Speech to Motivate People

How to write a speech to motivate people

When John F Kennedy took the lectern at Rice University in September 1962, his intention was far greater than delivering a speech that outlined his ambition to send a man to the moon.

The speech was engineered to motivate the nation, to inspire them to believe in what seemed impossible and to garner support for something many opposed.

He started the speech by reminding the audience of humankind’s amazing feats throughout history. Feats that seemed impossible at the time but, once achieved, progressed humanity in unimaginable ways.

He gives the example of learning how to write and then print. Creating the steam engine. Newton exploring the meaning of gravity. Inventing lights, electricity, cars and planes. Even the invention of penicillin and nuclear power.

By reminding the audience of ground-breaking advancements, he opened their minds to the possibility that man could land on the moon. He made them believe it was within reach.

It was a bold, yet brilliant, move and should serve as inspiration as today’s leaders face similar challenges. 

The Information Age has been dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Humankind is once more on the verge of progressing in unimaginable ways. The last 20 years has given us a glimpse of what’s to come and how our lives might change.

But with this advancement comes great challenges for leaders. How do they get employees to envision a future that is too unpredictable to clearly paint? How do they motivate employees to change the way they work? How do they inspire employees to believe in previously unimaginable possibilities?

It’s not just a great challenge for leaders, but a great challenge for speechwriters too. 

So, here are three tips to help you write a speech to motivate others.

  1. Choose language wisely for your speech.

Word choice is always important. Every word on the page should be chosen intentionally. Every word should serve a purpose. This is even more important when trying to inspire and motivate others. 

Choose words that convey action (think verbs and adverbs). For example, in the Rice University speech, JFK says: “No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come.

Also note that not all words are created equal. Some words have far greater impact than others. Here’s 10 examples. It is a tiny sample to prove my point:

  • Built
  • Demand
  • Desire
  • Discover
  • Erase
  • Pioneered
  • Pluck
  • Proven
  • Scorch
  • Unearth

Choose words that will have greater impact, words that will motivate and inspire.

  1. Use a variety of sentence lengths in your speech to convey action.

When you are trying to motivate an audience, the last thing you want to do is put them to sleep — so, for goodness’ sake, do not speak sentences that are consistently long or consistently the same length. (Consistency is NOT key when delivering a speech!)

Short sentences convey action, even danger. It says to the brain, “listen up — this is important.” Then you can use longer sentences, as well as the speed and volume of your voice, to convey movement and action.

Here’s an example.

“Listen. Come closer. I’m about to tell you something special, something you’ll want to know, something that will change your life. I’m about to tell how to write sentences that can hook an audience and get your message heard, allowing you to create positive change in the world.”

Note the different sentence lengths and its impact on rhythm. 

  1. Tell stories in your speech.

If you’ve read my blog post Three Tips to Write a Better Speech, you’ll know that, in my world, story is not King (or Queen). The point to a story is what sits on the throne. 

But here’s greater insight into why and how you should tell stories.

We tell stories because they make us feel things and not in a lovey-dovey kind-of-way, but in a scientific kind-of-way.

Us humans are empathetic creatures. It’s part of our survival programming. When someone tells us a story, we feel the emotions of the character or person in the story. In other words, telling stories elicits a chemical reaction in YOUR brain! It’s why a sad movie stays with you for days.

It’s also why stories are so powerful in speeches. You can make an audience feel emotions by sharing a story.

Years after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had apologised to the stolen generation, I found myself in tears reading the transcript.

He told the story of a woman in her 80s who had been taken from her mother when she was just four years old.

Here’s an excerpt:

“She loved the dancing. She remembers once getting into strife when, as a four-year-old girl, she insisted on dancing with the male tribal elders rather than just sitting and watching the men, as the girls were supposed to do.

But then, sometime around 1932, when she was about four, she remembers the coming of the welfare men.

Her family had feared that day and had dug holes in the creek bank where the children could run and hide.

What they had not expected was that the white welfare men did not come alone. They brought a truck, two white men and an Aboriginal stockman on horseback cracking his stockwhip.

The kids were found; they ran for their mothers, screaming, but they could not get away. They were herded and piled onto the back of the truck. Tears flowing, her mum tried clinging to the sides of the truck as her children were taken away to the Bungalow in Alice, all in the name of protection.”

I felt the fear of the children. I felt the desperation of their mothers. I felt the heartache of families forever torn apart.

They weren’t just words processed by my ears, but emotions felt deep within my heart.

That’s the power of story. If you want to motivate and inspire others, tell stories.

When the days are tough and the future uncertain, the world needs great communicators. I hope these three tips help you to communicate with greater influence and impact.

Why YOU Can Be a Better Speechwriter

Why YOU Can Be a Better Speechwriter

Why YOU Can Be a Better Speechwriter

A post popped up in my LinkedIn feed last week that gave me all the feels.

A man shared a letter from 17 years ago. It was addressed to him from a senior officer in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The man, who had been a 12-year-old boy at the time, had written to the RAAF and sent them designs for two new aircraft. The senior officer had replied, commending his ingenuity.

The man said the letter from the senior officer had “ignited a fire” in him, and despite setbacks and challenges, it kept him moving forward. Now 29 years old, he is on a path to achieve his dream, studying Physics and working at a start-up in the Defence industry.

The story resonated with me because it reminded me of another overly ambitious 12-year-old: it reminded me of me.

When I was 12 years old, I was desperate to be a writer. I walked into the local news agency, with pen and paper in hand. I opened the cover page of every magazine that I knew and wrote down its telephone number. Then I walked to the closest pay phone and started calling all the magazines on the list. Begging them if I could do work experience with them.

It was such a long shot. I was 12 years old and reaching for the stars, calling the biggest publications in the country. The same publications that all the journalism university students would have called months earlier, also asking to do work experience with them.

There were so many reasons why every magazine would say no. But rather than a list of obstacles, I saw a list of opportunities.

I had called about two-thirds of the magazines on my list before CLEO magazine finally said yes. Later that year, I walked into the biggest magazine publishing house in Australia, and, in many ways, I feel as though that was the start of my career.

Like the man in the first story, 17 years later I was also living out my dream. I was working at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, writing speeches for the Prime Minister.

People often think that speechwriting is a gift that you are born with but, for me, it’s been a passion I’ve pursued. I’ve read books, done courses, studied it at university.

I tell this story because we place so much emphasis on intelligence and natural ability when attitude is the most critical factor of success. Those who succeed are those who believe in themselves, those who chase opportunities regardless of obstacles.

If you want to be a better writer, I genuinely believe you can be, if you so choose to be. 

Why Speechwriters Must Make an Effort to Understand

Why Speechwriters Must Make an Effort to Understand

Why Speechwriters Must Make an Effort to Understand

When I was 15 years old, a prominent Australian Judge stood between me and another student. In his hand, facing each of us, was a twenty-cent coin. He asked me, “What do you see?” I said heads. He asked the other student the exact same question. They said tales.

This took place at the State Championship for Schools Conflict Resolution and Mediation (SCRAM). Think of it as like a debating competition. Teams from different schools go head-to-head, except, rather than debating, the skills assessed are mediation skills. You help squabbling parties reconcile their differences to find a way forward and the best team at mediation wins.

This prominent judge, Sir Laurence Street, then asked, “Well who’s right and who’s wrong?” Before telling us, it was our job as a mediator to help both parties understand that there are two sides to every coin.

The whole encounter lasted a couple of minutes, yet the message was so powerful it has stayed with me ever since. That message is that you can think you are categorically correct but it’s merely because you are seeing something completely different to your opponent.

It is something I often re-visit, something that strongly guides me, as a speechwriter. Because I know, as a speechwriter, I can’t convince someone to see heads if I don’t first understand why they see tails.

It was along these lines that a wonderful colleague in the United States, David Murray, wrote his recent book An Effort to Understand: Hearing One Another (and Ourselves) in a Nation Cracked in Half.

Along with another colleague in Canberra, we recently hosted a talk with David to discuss his book and its important message. I think the audience walked away with many great insights, but, for me, what resonated most strongly is that now is not the time for communicators to stir the pot. As David says in his book, “The animals are already stirred up.”

He’s right. Have you checked your social media feeds lately? Social issues are causing so much debate and division. Battle lines are drawn. You are either on one side or the other. You are either looking at heads or you are looking at tails. This doesn’t leave much room for middle ground, for understanding.

There are two things making the situation even more divisive: social media algorithms and the human brain.

Social media algorithms are engineered to give you more of what you like. In other words, if you get your news from your social media accounts, even if that news is from well-known media outlets, you have a very narrow view of the world. Social media is not designed to help you see the bigger picture, understand world issues in context. Rather, social media is engineered to centre around you. It’s your little world, presented as the whole wide world.

Now overlay that with the human brain, which is also designed to reinforce your existing values and beliefs. The human brain is so efficient at it that it discredits any information that challenges what you already think. There’s other things at play, too: the brain’s Reward and Threat system and our brain’s response when our identity is attacked or when we are shamed.

It’s no wonder why we see such heated debates on social media, with both sides thinking they are categorically correct.

What does this mean for leaders and speechwriters?

I think we should refrain from joining heated debates, from throwing hand grenades and choosing a side.

We must be more understanding, more empathetic, more self-aware.

So, the next time you feel yourself getting riled up, the next time you want hit that keyboard and scream that the answer is heads, the next time you want to write that speech that tears shreds off the other side, stop. Pause. Take a breath. Make an effort to understand.

We’re all looking at the same coin, just from different sides. If you want people to see what you do, first understand why it is that they see it differently. It’s no good making unnecessary enemies in the process of trying to change opinions. Speechwriters must come from a place of understanding, not judgement. 

Three tips to write a better speech

Three tips to write a better speech

Three tips to write a better speech

 You’ve been invited to give a speech. You say yes (with much excitement). You lock the date in your diary. You feel wonderful that people want to hear what you have to say.

But then the date is fast approaching.

That excitement gives way to anxiety and fear because now you must write that damn speech. In your head you know exactly what you want to say but committing it to paper is much harder than you imagined. 

Where do you even start?

There’s much advice I could give you about writing speeches. Just check your library: there are many books on the topic (I also run courses and webinars to help you become a better speechwriter). But I don’t want to overwhelm you with speak of metaphor and antithesis and style and structure.

I want to keep it simple, so here are three tips to help you get started with writing a speech.

1. Know the key message of your speech

You’re probably thinking, ‘thank goodness I’m not paying for this advice because knowing your key message is basic stuff’.

…Except that it isn’t.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with a leader or an adviser about a speech and they’ve struggled to articulate the single key message of the speech.

Without a key message, it is a speech without a purpose, a speech without a point (also known as a ‘nothing’ speech, I’m sure you’ve listened to a few in your life).

My very first speechwriting director gave me excellent advice, and I’m going to give it to you: If you’re struggling to articulate the key message of your speech then imagine that, after your speech, a newspaper article is written about it — what would be the headline of the article? For example, Nicole Thomson-Pride said XXX.  Whatever that XXX is that is the key message of your speech.

Once you know that key message — which is the message you want your audience to walk away with — then you can start building your speech around it.

2. Speechwriting is about writing for the ear, not the eye

If you have only just started to write speeches, then chances are you’ve only ever written for the eye — for people to read it. So let me give you some good advice: writing for the ear is different to writing for the eye.

A good example is you need to simplify your sentences and language. You might get away with fancy-long-syllable words when writing, but, when speaking, one syllable words are far more powerful.

When writing a speech, it should sound vastly different to when you write a report or policy.

  • Write shorter sentences.
  • Try to avoid long syllable words, especially in close proximity.
  • Write with an active voice.
  • Use action words – this will help keep the listener engaged.
  • Create a narrative using research, facts and figures, stories and anecdotes. Don’t just bore people with statements, persuade them with substance.

3. Stories and anecdotes are supporting actors, not heroes in your speech

Say what? All you’ve ever been told is that story is king and now this woman is trying to tell you otherwise.

Yep. I am.

Because too often in speeches a story is told — a great story — and it fails to give me all the feels. It fails because people think the story is the hero but it’s not. The point to the story is the hero.

The story is merely the supporting act. It creates the tension and builds the emotion but it is the point to the story that gives you all the feels.

Make sure after you’ve told a great story in a speech, you drive home the point of it. Because that is what will give people goosebumps, that is what will make people clap their hands hard and fast, that is what will make people rise to their feet and cheer.

Barack Obama is excellent at it. Here’s an example from his victory speech in 2008.

You will clearly see, he only tells the below anecdotes to drive home the point that his victory belongs to his supporters.

“I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington — it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20 to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this earth. This is your victory.”

Here’s a bonus tip: know the point you want to get across to the audience, then choose the perfect story or anecdote to illustrate it.

There you go. If you are new to speechwriting, there’s three tips to help you write an amazing speech.

Take a big piece of butcher’s paper, put your key message in the middle, work out your key themes to support your message and then work out your research, statistics, stories and anecdotes that support your key themes.

Happy writing.