How to write a great speech

I love speech writing. Crafting the text is a great challenge, but then actually hearing someone you’ve worked with get up on stage and nail it is a whole other thrill. Better still, is hearing people laugh or applaud at all the right moments.

With so many political speeches getting posted online in the lead up to the US election, there are plenty of examples of what works, and what doesn’t, to learn from. And there are plenty of critiques floating around too.

It made me think I should go back to the basics and look at a post I wrote a few year ago about the elements of a great speech. Here it is, but updated with some new thoughts and references.

Speeches can be an inspiring, wonderfully rich means of communication. They can also be duller than dirt. If you want to write or deliver a compelling speech, here are some basics to remember.

1. Have a point and make it early. Don’t make people wait. Don’t spend a lot of time setting things up. Right off the top, give people a reason to pay attention.

2. Know your audience and meet their needs. Use words they use. Tell stories they can retell. Pause when they need you to pause – remember, they need to get where you are.

3. Have a story and tell it. Use the basic narrative tools of: characters, actions and time to draw people in and create, sustain and resolve tension.

4. Work humour and personality into the speech. Use humour in speeches the same way you would use it in a conversation with your brother—naturally. If you are writing for clients, make time to get to know their sense of humour so that you don’t make them stretch. They should be able to read your speech as if they wrote it, which means that ideally—over and above the subject matter for their speech —you need to get to know their cadence, rhythms, humour, tone, vocabulary and voice—all the things we use to share our personality through speech.

5. Use rhythm like you aren’t afraid of it. People are afraid of rhythm. I don’t know why. Reverie can take place in moments of silence. Joy rises up with well-paced language. Pride and engagement can be summoned through repetition and the creation of a sense of familiarity. Rhythm in language, and in delivery, is a gift to the listener.

6. Stand and deliver. No apologies.

Watch the simple five-minute story that connected Barack Obama to millions of people during the last presidential election and you will see how he did all of the above.

But how do you make the magic last longer than five minutes? Take a look at how story, and familiar references are used to keep listeners engaged and comfortable as they follow the complex arguments in these long, but compelling speeches.

Bill Clinton speaks at the 2012 DNC (C-SPAN) – Full Speech and here’s Maclean’s writer, Scott Feschuk’s take on it, Yep, it was that good.

Social Commentator, Allan Gregg’s Remarks to Carleton University – September 5, 2012.

And here, listen to how Michelle Obama uses personal stories, humour and rhythm to captivate her audience Michele Obama’s speech at the 2012 DNC – Full Speech. She knows her audience – the women. Watch for all the ways she connects with them, starting with the way she is introduced.

Whether you agree with the political perspectives of the speakers or not, the speeches demonstrate ways to make detailed arguments and emotional appeals memorable. And that’s what you want. A great speech lives on because people remember it and keep talking about it.

If you are interested in learning more about speech writing, I’d recommend Colin Moorhouse’s online speech writing course. I took it a few years ago. I often refer back to his five elements of engagement and ask myself these things.

Event: Why are you speaking? What are the expectations of the crowd? Who is in the room? What do they need?
Story: What will connect dots and connect hearts?
Language: How can this be said so that it resonates with the listener, and falls easily off the lips of the speaker?
Humour: Colin’s kind of funny, so I think about the things I learned when he was being funny, and I think about where humour could be used to best effect.
Oratory: What is the speaker’s natural rhythm and personality? How comfortable will s/he be? How can I approach the speech to make it easy for that speaker to deliver?

What are you favourite speeches? Share. Inspire. Send links.

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