WRITING A GREAT SPEECH IN 11 STEPS – 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 and you might as well go home. In a nutshell, a successful speech needs a clear, meaningful objective and associated messages; solid, innovative research; valuable content and persuasive writing that collectively challenge a listener’s mindset. Drafting should be treated as a negotiation between speaker and audience.

Below are my 11 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 are 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. Avoid bland, generic, passive objectives. Don’t aim to ‘inform users about new safety regulations’ but to ‘give users confidence that new safety regulations address their long-standing concerns’.

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. Also, 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, not only tactically. Treating a speech as an isolated offering risks saying something that contradicts an earlier presentation – and someone is bound to pick up on the discrepancy. 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

These flow from the objective. They are the points you want to get across to the audience as forcefully as possible. 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’.

Research the speaker

A speech reflects on the speaker. Make sure you know enough about their background, values, 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, so 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. 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 couple of points outline some approaches to this process. 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.

Open with a mind bender

It’s a sad fact that most of us hear only what we want to hear. 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 facts 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.

Listen, as well as speak

A person is unlikely to take kindly to a speaker spouting views he doesn’t agree with if the speaker also adopts a lecturing tone. The speaker needs to understand the core issues of the audience and to address them intelligently in their comments. Don't take the perspective that you're talking at the audience but that it's a conversation. See if there is room to manoeuvre, e.g.proposing an ongoing dialogue.

Research well

The upshot of these points is good research. A speech grounded in factual, intelligent arguments is more likely to encourage critics into dialogue and potentially reduce opposition and build support.

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 succinct, memorable conclusion that sums up the key messages and leaves 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 write a speech, so avoid a major mistake with your speech's framework.

Content

The facts, figures, language, interpretations, word pictures etc. employed in a speech must weld together seamlessly 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 knows what he’s saying but it might not be what’s heard. Read a draft speech aloud several times to pick up any areas of confusion. Put yourself in the shoes of the speaker and then the listener. The bigger the gap between content and rhetoric, the greater the danger. A speaker who is full of hyperbole when talking about modest successes soon debases the currency. 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. If you want to be provocative – fine – but be ready to back it up with substance.
Be careful with grammar, spelling, use of the vernacular etc. Serious errors reflect badly on the speaker. Sentences should generally 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, I suggest peppering the address with summary paragraphs that are 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.

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, intriguing analogies 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) and 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 - is a successful speech.
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