WRITING A GREAT SPEECH – WORDS THAT MAKE THINGS HAPPEN

After decades of speech and report-writing for senior people in the public and private sectors, I was asked recently about my recipe for writing a great speech. The request got me pondering about the essential steps I go through to ensure a happy client and an engaged audience, and to help deliver tangible results. I should add that I’m not talking about speeches that are designed to entertain or to eulogise etc. but words that make things happen.

If listeners to a speech think after the first few minutes that they’re hearing familiar sludge, you’ve lost them. You might as well go home. In a nutshell, a successful speech needs a clear, meaningful objective and a few associated messages; innovative research; valuable content and written with imagination and cogent advocacy. Drafting should be treated as a negotiation between speaker and audience – then you’ll have words that make things happen!

Below are my steps to great speech writing, not necessarily in sequential order.

Define the objective

Know what the speech is designed to achieve. This is the most important step. Without a clear objective, the words become aimless and the speaker sounds all over the place. Virtually every word in a working speech needs to advance the objective and it’s worth thinking hard about it. I have the objective written on a piece of paper in front of me all of the time I’m drafting. Avoid bland, generic objectives. Don’t aim to ‘inform investors about a new project’ but to ‘give investors confidence that the new project offers them a set of defined benefits’.

Think strategically, not only tactically

Don’t treat a working speech as an isolated initiative because generally it isn’t. Invariably, it will be part of a longer-term communication strategy, even if the strategy hasn’t yet been articulated. It probably addresses one phase in a developing policy/project. Phases could include: floating an idea; conceptual development; planning; implementation; operation; promotion; review; the outcome of a major incident etc. A great speech looks to the future – to further evolution; to better outcomes. So, always think strategically about what you write. Treating a speech as an isolated offering risks saying something that contradicts an earlier presentation. Someone is bound to pick up on the discrepancy. A good speech needs to have a life longer than its delivery. It’s nice to get a good reception on the day but not if listeners, when they reflect on the speech, discover that it’s full of incorrect facts. On the positive side, a campaign allows each public statement to build on the other. The speaker can take more risks – acknowledging challenges in earlier addresses and addressing solutions in latter ones.

Set out core messages and give them air

These flow from the objective. They are the points you want to get across as forcefully as possible. Don’t have too many or the speech could easily lose focus. Messages could include: ‘from an environmental perspective, the Government should not be funding project x but project y’, ‘planning for the new technology platform is progressing well and criticisms are unfounded’ or ‘your problem will not be solved by throwing money at it but by better management’. Ensure the messages are given prominence in drafting – not just in the proportion of the speech devoted to their elucidation but by highlighting them, e.g. ‘I have three key messages…’.

Research the speaker

A speech reflects on the speaker. Make sure you know enough about their background, achievements, objectives and style, so the draft aligns with their approach and adds to their credibility. Frequently, the speaker is a person involved with implementing the subject-matter of the speech, such as a senior manager, politician or high-ranked member of the military. So if you want words that make things happen then the address has to give the audience confidence in the speaker’s ability to see through difficult decisions.

Negotiation between speaker and audience

What a speaker wants to say and what an audience wants to hear are not necessarily the same – an audience can be potentially hostile to what the speaker represents. The more contentious the subject, the bigger the gulf between speaker and audience. Speeches are often given in the highly competitive arena of ideas. The speaker might be advocating a change that is not welcome; or building a case for a project that is controversial.

A successful speech negotiates these disagreements – not by avoiding them but by arguing the merits of change and the costs of the status quo – or vice versa depending on the issues. The guts of a working speech is this negotiation. The next few points outline some approaches to this endeavour. Remember also to segment your audience: not just those in front of you but the media and their readers, e.g. industry practitioners, users, regulators, community advocates, media groups etc.

Words that make things happen – open with a mind bender

It’s a sad fact that most of us hear only what we want to hear. We have filters that let through facts, interpretations and arguments that reinforce our preconceptions and that keep out alternative or competing approaches. How do we weaken these defensive mechanisms? I’ve found that introducing novel information or an unexpected perspective very early in an address can open people’s minds and they are then more likely to be receptive to the rest of the speaker’s comments. For example, bring in material about overseas experience; if you’re talking about a particular industry sector, start with broader economic trends that will affect the future of the sector; or talk about relevant historical examples. In short, position what you’re talking about in a broader, imaginative, intriguing context that might shift the listeners’ mindsets. Say something – intelligent, not gratuitously provocative – that the listeners didn’t expect.

Respect the intelligence of an audience

Words that make things happen recognise and respect the intelligence and viewpoints of an audience. A person is unlikely to take kindly to a speaker spouting views he/she doesn’t agree with if the speaker also adopts a lecturing or condescending tone. The speaker needs to understand the core concerns of the audience and to address them intelligently in their comments. Have a conversation with the audience, don’t talk at them. Pose questions that address issues of concern to them – ‘Some would argue that there is no need to change this policy now because the costs are too high’ – and then set out your response. See if there is room to manoeuvre, e.g.proposing an ongoing dialogue.

Structure

We finish off with how the speech is written and presented – structure, content, style and visual supports. To my mind, structure is important in two respects. Firstly, a good structure allows the speaker to present their case logically and cogently without confusion, dead-ends, duplication etc. The address moves forward like an appealing piece of music, building momentum, and ends with a memorable conclusion that sums up the key messages. It should leave the audience thinking more constructively about the issues and the speaker. Many years ago, I started to draft a speech structured around the four objectives of a package of a dozen or so projects. Sounds reasonable, but as most of the projects served multiple objectives, the draft became repetitive – I was repeating the projects over-and-over. I learned my lesson.

Secondly, a poor structure is hard to correct if the drafting is already well-progressed. I’m a strong advocate of starting to write early in the piece; so, I suggest thinking carefully about structure as you move into drafting, assessing different structures, until you feel confident to settle on the main bones before you’re too advanced. Seldom does a speech-writer have the luxury of surplus time to correct a speech, so avoid a major mistake with your speech’s framework.

Content

Ultimately, it is the content of a speech – the evidence it calls upon and the arguments and stances it draws from the evidence that must carry the day. There is no alternative to good research and well-argued positions. Think carefully about the evidence and the arguments you will use as the foundation of the speech.

Often your speaker is presenting alongside other speakers and some may be advocating competing ideas. It is essential that your speaker advocates their case as strongly and positively as possible. It would also be useful if they address the most persuasive competing views. Then the audience will listen to the range of alternative opinions with more critical minds.

A speaker should not just want a positive response at the end of their remarks. It is important that when listeners recall the speech and inform their colleagues about it in the days and weeks to come that the force of the speech has grown, not fallen away. This will happen if the content has been strong.

Style

A speaker who is full of hyperbole when talking about modest successes soon debases the currency. The bigger the gap between content and rhetoric, the greater the danger. It seems virtually everything these days is ‘brilliant’ or ‘among the most important, far-reaching’ etc. It is best to be understated and use superlatives sparingly, unless you are announcing something big. Some people believe flowery or sensationalist language is needed to make a speech interesting. Wrong! The sugar hit lasts five minutes and is unlikely to sway many people. Shouting or making a joke to cover up a weak point doesn’t work. If you want to be provocative – fine – but be ready to back it up with substance.

In words that make things happen, the factual evidence, arguments, language, word pictures etc. employed must weld together to engage the audience and deliver the speaker’s messages powerfully. A speech is not only spoken; it is heard. A speaker might think he/she knows what they are saying but it might not be what’s heard. Read a draft aloud several times to pick up any areas of confusion. Put yourself in the shoes of the speaker and then the listener.

Be careful with grammar, spelling, use of the vernacular etc. Serious errors reflect badly on the speaker. Sentences should be straightforward and short, and one’s main arguments, messages and conclusions need to be easily understood by the audience. This doesn’t mean dumbing down. A technical speech to a technical audience is one thing. However, if you wish to engage a broader audience, especially on a complicated topic, try peppering the address with a few summary paragraphs. These should be comprehensible to an intelligent layman.

Visual aids can be a great help in carrying the speaker’s message; in reinforcing major points and in presenting complicated information. They should be employed to enhance what the speaker is saying, not muffle it or distract the listener. I once listened to a presentation where one of the slides seemed to show information that contradicted what the speaker was saying. Many of the audience felt the same way. The speaker tried in vain to explain the discrepancy and was left red-faced.

Words that make things happen – be imaginative!

Last, and certainly not least, be imaginative. Find interesting ways to get your message across. It could be a novel structure, use of unexpected content and examples, intriguing analogies and humour or linking the message to other topical issues. I was once involved in a major and contentious industry reform exercise that had many vocal critics. The head of the initiative structured an address in the form of a report card on progress as at the date of speaking. It outlined achievements but also difficulties in a blunt, straightforward approach.

The transparent honesty had some costs but it elicited a flurry of questions (as it was designed to). It began a process of closer engagement on the complexity of the issues. Gradually, it was acknowledged that the exercise was a serious attempt at improvement and the speaker became recognised as a leader, not a talking head. Join up the dots in different ways! An approach that sits listeners up so they switch onto what the speech is saying and leave with a better appreciation of the presenter and their message. This is a successful speech.
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