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.