Speech Writing I: Eleven Steps

Step 1: Interview the Speaker

Discuss the Audience.

Discuss Topics.

Discuss Length.

Step 2: Interview the Sponsor

Talk with the people sponsoring the event at which your speaker will appear. Learn every detail: What time of the day or night will the speech be given? Will there be other speeches, and if so, by whom and on what topics? Will any other activity be competing with the speech? What will the audience be doing during the speech: Standing or sitting? Eating dinner? Having drinks? Studying printed material? Listening to a translation? What will the audience have been doing before the speech, and what will the audience be doing after it? What is the context of the occasion? Is it a one-time affair or a regular event?

Step 3: Choose the Topic

Where Do You Get Ideas for a Speech? In developing ideas for speeches, it helps to know a little bit about a lot of things.
Do a lot of reading, and try to keep up with everything that’s happening. Taking a definitive stand on a current controversy or looking at an old or new issue from a unique, or very personal, point of view are ways to turn an ordinary speaking occasion into a memorable event for the audience and the speaker.

HowMany Ideas Can Fit Comfortably in a Speech? Like an essay, a speech should focus on one main idea or thesis that can be summarized in one or two sentences. The anecdotes, examples, statistics, and other details that make up the body of the address should illuminate and support the main theme and serve to make it understandable and memorable to the various constituencies in the audience.

When Do You Proceed with Research and Outlining? Your interview of the speaker and the event sponsor, as well as your general knowledge of current events and company and industry issues, should suggest a number of ideas to choose from. Present your two or three best ideas to the speaker, asking that he or she make the final choice. Never proceed to the outline stage without an explicit approval.

Step 4: Research and Outline

Good writing is based on thorough research and a careful outline, and speech writing is no exception.

Research. Check all references and resources available to you on the subject of your speech and any subjects closely related to it. Use a library or data bank to look up articles and books that relate to the topic. Your research is not finished until you completely understand the topic and have more information and background than you’ll be able to use.

Outline. There are numerous ways to structure a speech, regardless of its content and length. The elementary threepart format of essays—introduce what you’re going to say, say it, and then summarize what you’ve said—is a good general format for speeches. Here is a sample of a basic outline for a speech a company president might give to sales representatives at an annual sales meeting:
1. Welcoming remarks
• Cordial greetings
• Purpose of meeting
2. Report card on company growth
• Sales figures this year
• Sales figures compared with those of last year
• Goals for coming year
3. Role of sales reps in relation to employees in other departments
• Comparative remarks
• Achievements
• Goals for the future
4. Conclusion
• Challenges ahead
• How to meet them

Step 5: Make It Conversational, Keep It Simple, and Keep It Light

Speeches should be based on conversational language. The less formal, bloated, and academic the writing is, the better the speech will be. There are phrases and idioms that look like slang in print but are wonderful when said aloud. For example, colloquialisms— expressions that are characteristic of familiar, informal conversation—should be used in speeches.

When writing a speech, ask yourself how the speaker would
casually say this to a person sitting next to him or her on
a train. That should help you express the information more conversationally in the speech. Keep the material simple and light but not trite. Using humor and anecdotes helps keep a speech light, but beware of jokes. Most public speakers do not have the timing and delivery of standup comedians, and most are not natural storytellers either. But if humor can flow naturally out of the subject and is appropriate to all considerations, then it can be helpful.

Never resort to joke books. Humor must be organic to work. The classic, awful opening of a speech is when the speaker tells an irrelevant little joke and then says, ‘‘But seriously, folks. . .’’ Some executives resist using humor and anecdotes. They’ll say, ‘‘I don’t do humor; this is a serious speech.’’ But you don’t have to be pompous to be dignified. Being serious doesn’t mean being dull. Injecting personal feelings, maybe even self-deprecating humor, is a way to attract and hold the attention of the audience.

The Lead. There are many ways to grab the attention of listeners at the start of a speech. You don’t have to open with
an arresting question, a compelling anecdote, or an inflammatory statement that shocks or startles—but it’s not necessarily bad if you do. More often, good speeches start with a salutation, the speaker’s gracious acknowledgment of where he or she is, who is being addressed, and why.

For example, Paul C. Reilly (2003), chairman of the board and CEO of Korn/Ferry International, began a speech in China by saying:
Good afternoon and thank you for having me here today. It is always a pleasure to come to Beijing, and I am particularly pleased to be addressing this group of MBA students, because you truly represent the future of Chinese business leadership.

Bob Wright (2002b) of NBC spoke on ‘‘Restoring Trust: The Work of America,’’ he began:
Thanks, Charlie [Menges]. It’s a pleasure to be here to speak to the Legatus organization and its guests. But first, you can’t invite a television executive anywhere without having to watch a videotape. I brought a short one that relates to my theme today.

Conclusion. The end of a speech must be self-evident. The audience needs cues that it’s almost over and the speaker expects applause. There are numerous ways to signal the end of a speech. The speaker can say, ‘‘Before I leave you this evening, I’d like to review the main point. . . , ’’ or ‘‘To conclude, I’d like to summarize. . . ,’’ or ‘‘I know you’re eager to hear the other guest speakers—and so am I—but before I finish, I’d like to say. . .’’ The best speeches have a unifying theme throughout, and the end of a speech should have a natural tie to the beginning. The main points should be summarized at the end of the speech. Whenever possible, leave an audience with an optimistic feeling. Point to what can be achieved, what challenges lie ahead, and what rewards will ensue. Steve Jobs’s speech both signals the end and offers a sense of optimism:

Stewart [Brand] and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalogue, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-Seventies and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath were the words, ‘‘Stay hungry, stay foolish.’’It was their farewell message as they signed off. ‘‘Stay hungry, stay foolish.’’ And I have always wished that for myself, and now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you. Stay hungry, stay foolish [Jobs, 2005].

Step 6: Personalize the Content
It’s important to please the speaker for whom you’re writing, but that’s not the only opinion that counts. The speechwriter has to consider the audience. Will anybody really want to hear the speech? Will anybody truly care? If you have personalized the content of the speech to the audience, the answer will be yes.

Personalizing the speech and injecting emotion into it can be challenging, especially when you’re dealing with lots of plain facts. But analyzing how the information affects the people listening to it should help you personalize it. If you have a diversified audience to reach, break down how the subject affects each group that is listening.

Step 7: Confront Controversy
Whether to address controversial subjects related to a speaker will always have to be decided on a case-by-case basis. But if your speaker has been invited because of that issue, you can’t possibly avoid it. Confronting controversy can be a good way to clarify misinformation, offer background perhaps not covered in the press, or disarm a hostile audience. You do not want the audience thinking about one subject while your speaker addresses another, and you never want your speaker’s credibility compromised. If a contentious subject is likely to come up in a question-and-answer period later, it’s better to bring up the subject first and tackle it head-on.

Step 8: Test the Speech, and Encourage Rehearsal
As soon as you’ve finished the first draft of the speech, read it aloud. Notice where your tongue gets twisted or you run out of breath, and rewrite accordingly. Then read it to someone else and ask to be stopped wherever the meaning isn’t clear or confusion arises. Before you show the speaker your first draft, test the speech by writing a news story based on it. If you have trouble writing even a paragraph or two, it may suggest that the speech is not very interesting and needs more work. When the speaker is ready to review the speech, try to be there to listen. Find out what is not communicated clearly enough or where the speaker may feel uncomfortable. Also, make it your business to check any audiovisual, video, or other materials that will accompany the speech. Participate in technical rehearsals whenever possible.  A speaker using a teleprompter needs enough practice that the operator learns to follow the speaker’s pacing, and the speaker learns to trust that the operator will speed up and slow down as needed. The speaker—not the operator and not the machine—determines the pace.

Step 9: Draft Answers to Anticipated Questions
Help your speaker by anticipating questions and comments the speech is likely to raise. Some speeches are followed by a questionand- answer period with members of the press or the general audience, and the speaker should not be surprised or caught off guard by any of the questions. Supply related information if it is likely to be requested. When a speaker does not have specific information available on the spot, it is perfectly okay to have him or her say, ‘‘I don’t have that information at the moment, but I will be happy to check on it and get back to you.’’

Step 10: Attend the Speech
Whenever possible, the speechwriter should be present when the speech is given. Short of that, the writer should review a video or audio recording of the speech. There is a great deal to be learned by hearing the speech delivered; it can always be better the next time around. It is also helpful to hear people’s reactions directly following the speech. Speechwriters often comment that the most valuable reviews are heard in the restrooms afterward.

Step 11: Recycle the Speech
If the press is attending the speech, it is usually a good idea to have a copy of the speech available (sometimes it is distributed before the speech is given), along with a press release summarizing the most important points. Speeches can also be compelling content when posted on the company or organization Web site, and in fact, many organizations
post actual video or audio so that the visitor can experience the speech almost as the original audience did, complete with the speaker’s gestures and intonations. Consider also making speeches available online for downloading and Podcasting. The speech in written, video, or audio form can become part of the organization’s online archive for future reference by both the media and others.

In addition to finding their way into newspaper stories, speeches can be reprinted in internal publications, excerpted in trade and consumer magazine articles, taped for radio and television uses, and submitted to newsletters on current speeches, such as Vital Speeches of the Day, which publishes the full text of eight to ten speeches twice a month, and Speechwriter’s Newsletter.

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