Whether your aim is to inform, persuade, inspire or purely entertain your audience, preparing the right words is crucial to your success. You may be a politician, business leader or subject expert building up to sharing your views and insights at a conference, festival or rally. You may be a bridegroom, best man, father of the bride – or the bride herself – wanting to say something special at the wedding. You may be an author going to address a crowd at a book-signing event or a soldier needing to strike the right note with the troops. Whatever the context, the big question is how to write a speech that will pack some punch and leave a lasting impression.
Part of my job as a public speaking coach is to guide you through this process. (The other part is to help you to deliver your speech with confidence and style.) I can assist as much or as little as you like with putting the content together but showing you how to approach composing and structuring your speech is integral to the training. If what you’re trying to deliver is wrong, it’s impossible to put it across effectively. Conversely, if you’ve prepared your speech in the right way, delivering it well will be immeasurably easier.
As these 25 Speeches that Changed the World remind us, a well judged speech at an opportune moment can influence generations. Of course, you may not be aspiring to that on this occasion, but it’s still useful to learn from the great speakers of history.
The Art of Speechwriting
Speechwriting is an art that dates back thousands of years, with orators such Cicero still having a lot of teach us today. Rhetoric – effective or persuasive language, structural devices and figures of speech – was much prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans and can give power and authority to modern speeches too. (If you’re interested in ancient and modern rhetoric, Dr Jon Hesk of St Andrews University writes a great blog about it.)
For some, speechwriting is a full-time occupation: choosing words, honing phrases and crafting rhetoric for the people who are going to deliver them. For others, it’s once in a lifetime. Either way, how to write a speech that will captivate the audience and enhance the reputation of the speaker is a question no less important and no less challenging in the twenty-first century AD than it was in Classical times.
And yet, when you think about it, writing a speech is a contradiction in terms. A speech is something you say (there’s a clue in the name) and, unless you are a professional speechwriter, I strongly recommend you don’t, actually, write a speech.
What follows from writing a speech is reading a speech – and this is something few people can do effectively. When speakers do pull off reading their speeches it’s because a) they are seasoned professionals and b) either they are extremely experienced at writing speeches or they have hired someone trained and experienced to do it for them.
How to Write a Speech
In case you’ve skipped the preamble and started reading here, I’m going to repeat what I’ve said above: unless you are a professional speechwriter, I strongly recommend you don’t, actually, write a speech. Let us think of writing a speech as something figurative and establish that by ‘writing’ we mean creating, composing, developing your speech.
Begin by deciding what points you want to make
What is your speech about? Who is the audience? What are they expecting from you? What is the main message you want to convey?
Instead of sitting down and writing a script as if you were writing a letter, from start to finish, begin by identifying the core message you want the audience to take away. Once you’ve got that, you can start to build subsidiary points around it and then consider what anecdotes and so on would best illustrate what you’re saying. Construct your speech from the nub outwards.
Of course write down your ideas; just don’t write sentences.
Talk out loud!
Once you know what you want to say, say it. Out loud. This is a speech and what matters is how it sounds.
The point of not writing a script is twofold. Firstly (unless you’re a professional speechwriter), the way you write is a bit different from the way you speak. It’s more formal and, when spoken aloud, will sound stilted and unnatural. Even if you learn your script off by heart, when you deliver your speech you will still sound as if you’re reading it. Secondly, reading your speech – or even reciting your speech – doesn’t allow you really to connect with the audience.
Shape and polish your speech
Create your speech by speaking it aloud, honing it point by point and also seeing (hearing) how well it flows. Change it as often as is necessary until you’re happy with it and can say it smoothly.
As you go through it, you may decide the structure is wrong and that it makes more sense, for example, to explain X before you mention Y. This is what this phase is all about, so keep working at it.
Think about the language you’re using. Make sure it suits both your own personality and style and the situation in which you’re going to be speaking. Avoid clichés and use repetition judiciously (ie, in this context, rhetorically rather than in a waffly way). Before you dismiss rhetoric, have a look at this helpful and accessible page about speeches from the BBC.
Give your speech a strong opening and a strong end
The whole point of preparing your speech is that, on the day, you can speak with confidence and authority, without having to worry about what you’re going to say or how you’re going to express yourself. The beginning and the end need particular attention.
Don’t write a script but do use notes. It’s not worth taking the risk of forgetting what you wanted to say or losing your way in the middle. Have some brief bullet points on discreet cards, to act as a map and keep you on track.
When I mentioned above learning from the great orators, I meant take heed of how effective rhetoric can be. I did not mean necessarily copy these speakers’ styles. We are all different and it’s essential our speaking styles reflect that. Also, speeches that have gone down in history were delivered to huge crowds, usually in formal circumstances, and that is not always the case for us.
What you’re aiming at is to be the authentic you, at your very best.
Then work on your delivery
Once you know what you’re going to say, the next step is to work on putting it across to the audience. You’ll find lots of advice to help you with that on the rest of this website. For personalised coaching in both aspects, you can contact me here.