I’ve had some additional duties this year that have required me to add speech writing to my list of skills. I didn’t realize how much it would improve my writing in general. Even if you run in fear from public speaking (you’re in good company—95% of adults say it’s their number one fear), try these techniques for how to write a speech and see if speech writing helps your writing too!
I’ve received a couple big awards at work lately, and as a result, I’ve been called to speak at events. For an introvert like me, public speaking doesn’t come naturally. I’d much rather type out my words and publish them for an audience to read.
But writing a speech is great practice regardless of whether or not you’ll ever deliver it, because it forces you to think about audience, story, and message in a compressed format. Here’s what I’ve been practicing in my own speeches.
When I’m writing fiction, I tend to think about one ideal reader. In speechwriting, I’ve had to broaden how I think about audience.
Who will be there? What problems are they facing? What questions do they have? And most importantly, how can I speak effectively into those problems or questions with my message?
Knowing your audience is as important as knowing your readers. Your audience and readers have expectations. You make a promise by stepping to that podium that you will connect with them, even if it is only for a few minutes.
We’ve all sat through a boring or ineffective talk, lecture, or speech. What went wrong? It usually has to do with the connection of the message with the audience. If I don’t find it relevant, I’m going to have a hard time paying attention.
If you don’t know your audience, you’ll struggle to make that connection.
I attended a rally this week where we stood for several hours as people made speeches. There were probably ten speakers, and most were very good. They were clear and spoke into the concerns of the audience.
But two days later, I can only remember the specifics of two. You know what they had in common? Both told a story.
Our brains are hard-wired for story. A story is simply a person who wants something and has to overcome obstacles to get it; it’s transformation after struggle. A story uses clear imagery that stays with the audience long after the event.
Think about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, with the line, “America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’” or where he offers the image of children holding hands as the dream. His storytelling and imagery perfectly aligned with his message. It still resonates today.
If you’re writing a speech, find or write a story that illustrates your point and build your message from it. Get specific and use imagery that will stick in the audience’s mind.
In fiction, the message is the theme. Sometimes it is explicitly stated, but often theme is implied. In a speech, the message has to be clear, succinct, and unambiguous, especially if it is to be memorable.
This can be the most challenging part of public speaking. It’s easy to say a lot of words. It’s hard to revise and limit yourself to speaking only what is needed.
I recently attended a training where we wrote out our message on paper. They gave us five or six minutes and I easily had a page.
Then, we had to work with a partner. Each of us read our message and then our partner condensed what we’d said into a sentence. Suddenly, I realized which parts of my message were off.
By the end of the exercise, we each had our message down to six words—enough for a quick elevator pitch that grabbed someone’s attention.
As I reflected on the training, I realized it was the writing process in action. First draft, feedback, revision, feedback, more cutting, feedback, and polishing until crystal clear.
Strengthen Your Communication
I can’t end without sharing Nancy Duarte’s fascinating talk on the shared structure of great speeches. She studied the structure of famous speeches like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Steve Jobs’s speech when he introduced the iPhone and found they used similar structures. Well worth a listen.
Whether you have a speech to write for yourself or for a character in your book, I hope you’ll practice these strategies and find they strengthen your writing like they have mine.
What are your best tips for speech writing? Share in the comments.
Your character is given an award and asked to make a speech in front of a crowd. What’s the award, and what does your character say? Keeping the tips above in mind, write your character’s speech.