Yes, you can write that speech

First, let’s dispel a persistent myth regarding speeches and public speaking: there is no definitive evidence that Americans fear public speaking more than they fear death.

That canard began in the 1970s, when the Book of Lists put public speaking at the top of the list of Americans’ fears, with death coming in second. It was later found that, apparently, those surveyed were just asked to identify their fears, and public speaking was identified more than death. But the respondents were never asked to rank their fears, nor compare the fear of public speaking to that of death.

As for me, if I ever find myself in front of a firing squad and somehow learn of another person who’s been asked to give a speech, I’ll be glad to trade places.

Wherever it may rank, however, there’s no question that the fear of public speaking is very common. To help overcome those fears, I’d like to offer a few tips– specifically, for the first step involved in a public speaking opportunity: writing the speech.

I’ve been a speechwriter throughout my career, and it can be a satisfying opportunity to work with top management and utilize communications to help them achieve important goals. So if you’ve been assigned to write a speech, here are some tips – not a complete “how-to,” but some ideas to consider as you stare at the blank screen:

1. Research the audience. This is a simple step, yet one that can easily be overlooked if the speechwriter is too focused on what the speaker will say. Before beginning to write a speech, find out as much as you can about who will be in the audience, what they’re interested in, what opinions they may have, and what concerns them. The goal, in this step, is not to find out what people want to hear, but to understand the audience as much as possible so that the message of the speech is most effective.

2. Don’t start with a PowerPoint. When meeting with executives to begin preparing speeches, I’ve often been amazed to hear the speaker begin by saying “Let’s start with a PowerPoint,” as if completing a PowerPoint presentation is the same as writing a speech.

Much has been written on how PowerPoint has infiltrated corporate America to the point where some executives cannot speak to any group without it. Yes, PowerPoint has many uses; for example, it can be a great way to illustrate trends or complex data. But it’s a speaker support tool – it’s not a substitute for outlining, then writing, an actual speech.

Instead, start with a thesis. How to form a thesis? A very helpful resource is a book written in 1970, How to Write and Deliver a Speech, by John Ott. Although there are many other books about speech writing (a search of the term on the books section of yielded more than 40,000 entries) this still remains a good, easy-to-use manual for the craft of speechwriting.

Ott writes that a speech can have one of six purposes:

  • To inform,
  • To persuade,
  • To motivate,
  • To stimulate,
  • To entertain, and
  • To commemorate.

Based on the purpose of your speech, how you will achieve that purpose provides the basis for your thesis or objective.

A still-useful guide to structuring the speech is perhaps one of the oldest: A good speech requires a lot of research, organization, writing, re-writing and more re-writing. But one guide for how to structure a speech still resonates:

3. “Tell ‘em what you’re going to say, say it, then tell ‘em what you said.”

Sounds odd, doesn’t it? But you’ve probably listened to many speeches that were structured just in that manner. where the speaker may have opened with a story, joke or other introduction, and then said “Today, I’m going to talk about ______ ” [the thesis; for example, the need to support a ballot measure]. “I’m going to address these three [supporting] points.” Then, at the end, the speaker reiterates those three points, and winds up with a big finish reiterating the main thesis.

You’ve may have heard many speeches organized this way. It’s a popular way to do it, because it works: if the thesis and supporting points are presented in this way, audiences tend to remember them.

4. Don’t be vague or theoretical: be concrete and vivid. 

Tell stories; use metaphors; try to “paint a picture.” Here’s one way a portion of a famous speech, delivered in 1963, could have been written:

When our nation was founded, documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution referred to “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” which were guaranteed to “all men.” At the time, however, those rights didn’t apply to large segments of the population, including slaves. And even after a Civil War was fought to resolve the question of slavery, and after progress in black-white relations, many black Americans still do not share those same rights. Because they do not fully share in the rights guaranteed in our nation’s founding documents, many people of color remain dissatisfied.

But when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King made that point, but much more effectively, through the use of a simple image:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The image of a “ promissory note” was powerful and meaningful for his audience, and remains memorable and vivid today.

5. Write for the ear, not for the eye.

This might be one of the most difficult aspects of speechwriting. In our education, we learn more through reading than through listening.  If we then become writers, it’s natural to write with the expectation that what we have written will be read, not spoken.

For the speaker, however, it’s easier and more effective to deliver a speech with short, direct sentences, and with words that begin with more “hard” consonants (for example, k’s, m’s, p’s) than “soft” ones (in particular, s’s). For the listener, simple, active, direct sentences – with varied rhythm and tone – are, for the most part, easier to listen to and follow than long, complex sentences, phrased in the passive voice.

This may be especially important today, where the pace of communications and notoriously short attention spans demand that speakers be more direct, concise and to the point. One example, to perhaps the leading speaker of our day, is President Obama. His speeches contrast to the texts of great speakers of the past (Reagan, Kennedy, King, Roosevelt) in this regard. Obama’s former speechwriter, Jon Favreau, has commented that paring down the words of a draft speech to such direct and active sentences was often his most consuming task when helping the President with a speech text.

6. Leave ‘em wanting more.

Have you ever found yourself listening to a speech and, well into it, you begin to think that it seems that it could have ended a lot sooner?  Often, that’s because you’re correct: it probably should have ended a lot sooner.

It can be tempting, in writing a speech, to be so eager to make a point that you load up the text with as much supporting examples, documentation and information as you can, as if you’re doing a summation in a trial. The best speakers, however, know when to stop – they have made their point effectively, supporting that point with well chosen and memorable examples and evidence, and ending at a place where the audience has not only heard it, but is ready to respond: with agreement, action, approval, or whatever the speaker sought to achieve in the occasion. Following a speech, you want the audience to think, “That person is a real authority: I want to know more,” not, “Thank God that’s over.”

These are some ideas to help in the first half of speech preparation: writing the text. The second half involves delivering the speech. I’ll offer some ideas on that in a future blog post.

There are many volumes (as noted earlier, at least 40,000) that offer help in speech writing and delivery. These six recommendations have helped me as a speechwriter: what are principles that you consider important in speech writing?