Speechwriting 101: Writing an Effective Speech
Whether you are a communications pro or a human resources executive, the time will come when you will need to write a speech for yourself or someone else. When that time comes, your career may depend on your success.
J. Lyman MacInnis, a corporate coach, Toronto Star columnist, accounting executive and author of “The Elements of Great Public Speaking,” has seen careers stalled – even damaged – by a failure to communicate messages effectively before groups of people. On the flip side, solid speechwriting skills can help launch and sustain a successful career. What you need are forethought and methodical preparation.
Know Your Audience
Learn as much as possible about the audience and the event. This will help you target the insights, experience or knowledge you have that this group wants or needs:
- Why has the audience been brought together?
- What do the members of the audience have in common?
- How big an audience will it be?
- What do they know, and what do they need to know?
- Do they expect discussion about a specific subject and, if so, what?
- What is the audience’s attitude and knowledge about the subject of your talk?
- What is their attitude toward you as the speaker?
- Why are they interested in your topic?
Choose Your Core Message
If the core message is on target, you can do other things wrong. But if the message is wrong, it doesn’t matter what you put around it. To write the most effective speech, you should have significant knowledge about your topic, sincerely care about it and be eager to talk about it. Focus on a message that is relevant to the target audience, and remember: an audience wants opinion. If you offer too little substance, your audience will label you a lightweight. If you offer too many ideas, you make it difficult for them to know what’s important to you.
Research and Organize
Research until you drop. This is where you pick up the information, connect the ideas and arrive at the insights that make your talk fresh. You’ll have an easier time if you gather far more information than you need. Arrange your research and notes into general categories and leave space between them. Then go back and rearrange. Fit related pieces together like a puzzle.
Develop Structure to Deliver Your Message
First, consider whether your goal is to inform, persuade, motivate or entertain. Then outline your speech and fill in the details:
- Introduction – The early minutes of a talk are important to establish your credibility and likeability. Personal anecdotes often work well to get things started. This is also where you’ll outline your main points.
- Body – Get to the issues you’re there to address, limiting them to five points at most. Then bolster those few points with illustrations, evidence and anecdotes. Be passionate: your conviction can be as persuasive as the appeal of your ideas.
- Conclusion – Wrap up with feeling as well as fact. End with something upbeat that will inspire your listeners.
You want to leave the audience exhilarated, not drained. In our fast-paced age, 20-25 minutes is about as long as anyone will listen attentively to a speech. As you write and edit your speech, the general rule is to allow about 90 seconds for every double-spaced page of copy.
Spice it Up
Once you have the basic structure of your speech, it’s time to add variety and interest. Giving an audience exactly what it expects is like passing out sleeping pills. Remember that a speech is more like conversation than formal writing. Its phrasing is loose – but without the extremes of slang, the incomplete thoughts, the interruptions that flavor everyday speech.
- Give it rhythm. A good speech has pacing.
- Vary the sentence structure. Use short sentences. Use occasional long ones to keep the audience alert. Fragments are fine if used sparingly and for emphasis.
- Use the active voice and avoid passive sentences. Active forms of speech make your sentences more powerful.
- Repeat key words and points. Besides helping your audience remember something, repetition builds greater awareness of central points or the main theme.
- Ask rhetorical questions in a way that attracts your listeners’ attention.
- Personal experiences and anecdotes help bolster your points and help you connect with the audience.
- Use quotes. Good quotes work on several levels, forcing the audience to think. Make sure quotes are clearly attributed and said by someone your audience will probably recognize.
Be sure to use all of these devices sparingly in your speeches. If overused, the speech becomes exaggerated. Used with care, they will work well to move the speech along and help you deliver your message in an interesting, compelling way.