Five Steps for Writing a Great Speech

Note: To listen to audio of this post, please use the widget below or visit my Soundcloud page.

Why in the world would I discuss speechwriting in an inaugural post on a blog about content writing and narration? Well, as online composition becomes more colloquial, the rules for creating good content and a winning talk increasingly overlap. Also, you’ll find plenty of commonality between penning high-quality narrative material and great speeches. But the biggest reason is an imminently practical one. From board presentations to a best man’s toast, a product pitch to a personal introduction, most people will need—no, wait, strike that—have to talk to in public at some point. So, here are a few steps to make the process easier.

1) Don’t wing it. During an old college chum’s wedding, I watched the maid of honor attempt to improvise her speech. That’s a dicey enough proposition on its own. Unfortunately, the bride happened to be the woman’s sister, which meant the speech quickly veered off into murky family history. The maid of honor waxed expansive about her childhood desire to boil alive the stray pets her sibling had adopted down the years. The audience responded—just with disgust and confusion. Improvisation is difficult enough for professionals, let alone amateurs under public pressure. So prepare beforehand. You can make an expository speech, using a simple outline to guide you. You can talk from a manuscript, where every jot and tittle is written down. Both approaches have their downsides. The former can lead to bloat and the latter to a wooden tone. But they’re easier to manage than no plan at all.

2) Know what you want to communicate. Remember those old thesis papers you had to write in high school? They might’ve been a pain, but they taught a valuable skill: Keep the main idea front and center. Lead with it in your speech. Close with it. Repeat it regularly in between. But before you can do that, you need to have a concrete idea of exactly what you want to communicate. Boil your main point down to a single sentence, write it on a note card, and refer to it as you compose your speech.

3) Make it pithy. Note that I’m not saying a speech should always be short. Yes, brevity is usually a virtue in our Internet-addled age. Still, short doesn’t always feel that way. Consider music. Though I enjoy both folk and hip-hop, Gangstagrass’ “Long Hard Times To Come” starts feeling endless to me around the 60-second mark. Conversely, I can punch the repeat button on Andrew Peterson’s ten-minute-long “Don’t You Want To Thank Someone For This” without a second thought. The key is to not waste a second of the listeners’ time, to make each creative choice an intentional one that somehow furthers your stated goal. The next point helps too …

4) Keep your structure strong. No one enjoys a dull, plodding speech. Similarly, it’s hard to like one that meanders all the way to the moon and back. Variability within boundaries keeps the proceedings interesting. This little, bullet-pointed essay is an example of a strong structure. Similarly, you can always follow the classic three-step outline of introduction, main body, and conclusion. Just make sure to include strong transitions so each section flows into the next.

5) Get technical. The four previous points are the bedrock basics of speechmaking, the absolute essentials you need to keep your audience from nodding off. But mankind has employed oratory for millennia, and there are still plenty of tricks you can learn. If you want to delve more into the speechwriter’s craft, consider picking up a technical volume such as Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric. The differences between epimone (repetition of phrases), chiasmus (structural reversal), and ellipsis (intentional omission of words) might seem academic at first. But they can lend a surprisingly practical punch to your presentations.

Advertisements