10 time-tested techniques for any speechwriter

Former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton knows a thing or two about writing speeches. Here’s his best advice.

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States …”

In Washington, D.C., and countless communities, there are people who dream of reciting that oath and delivering an inaugural address. Many others dream of writing the speech.

Most of us won’t write speeches whose most memorable lines end up etched on marble monuments. But many leaders in every sector of American life give important speeches to shareholders, employees, community leaders, graduating classes and the news media. Often, they work with colleagues to draft and polish their remarks. For those occasions when you need to find and speak the right words, here are 10 time-tested techniques that can benefit any speaker:

1. Speeches are meant to be spoken and heard. If you have trouble pronouncing a word—or if an audience would have trouble understanding it—then don’t use it. For instance, the late New York Times language expert (and speechwriter for President Richard Nixon) William Safire wrote that he never used the word “pith” in a speech. As he (pithily?) explained, “It sounds like a vulgar word being spoken with a lisp.”

2. Speeches need a structure. Yes, you need a beginning, a middle and an end. Even more important, you need to follow the old rule: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; then tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em.”

In 1981, Jack Welch began his first speech to shareholders as CEO of GE by explaining: “I have three subjects to cover in this 10-minute report. First, I want to give you a brief perspective on your company at the beginning of a new administration… Second, I want to discuss the rationale behind the company’s recent moves in electronics, including two significant acquisitions. And third, I want to talk about one of my basic objectives for this company over the decade ahead.”

These aren’t applause lines. But they helped the audience listen for his big points.

3. The structure should be emotional, as well as logical. Learning from preachers, the best speakers of all kinds start on a high note, then bring the audience down by explaining a problem, then bring the audience back up on an even higher note than the beginning by presenting a solution or vision.

In his speech at the 1963 March on Washington, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., began by praising the participants in “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

Only after decrying segregation, discrimination and poverty did Dr. King conclude by describing his dream of justice and declaring “Let freedom ring.”

4. Shine a spotlight on your main point. Before you write a speech, ask yourself what you want your listeners to remember. Then make this point with the most memorable language in your speech.

In his first inaugural address in 1981, President Ronald Reagan declared: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

President Bill Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union Address positioned him halfway between Reaganism and liberalism: “The era of big government is over. But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”

5. Keep it short and simple (KISS). Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address took only two minutes and 246 words, most of them of one or two syllables. Before Lincoln, then-famous orator Edward Everett’s spoke for two hours and 13,607 words, many of them multi-syllabic. Simplicity is more memorable.

6. Begin with a grabber. Many speakers begin with lengthy acknowledgements of everyone else on the dais. It’s better to start by saying something that grabs the audience’s attention.

In his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs began: “I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation.”

7. Use techniques that help the audience listen and respond. Litany—repeating the same words, usually at the beginning of each sentence—helps audiences hear what you’re saying and answer with applause.

In June 1940, after the British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk, Prime Minister Winston Churchill vowed: “We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

8. Talk like a regular person. In his debut before a national audience, delivering the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, an Illinois State Senator named Barack Obama spoke more conversationally than most politicians. He described his younger self as “a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.” He talked about having met “a young man named Shamus in a V.F.W. Hall in East Moline, Illinois. He was a good-looking kid—six two, six three, clear eyed, with an easy smile.” These vivid descriptions of himself and others are how regular people talk (OK, regular people with the gift of gab).

9. Use physical images. Abstractions make people nod off. Real-life images make them wake up. In his farewell address in 1989, President Ronald Reagan took Americans on a tour through the White House—and American history:

“Down the hall and up the stairs from this office is the part of the White House where the president and his family live. There are a few favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand and look out of early in the morning… On mornings when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson Memorial to the Potomac River… Someone said that’s the view Lincoln had when he saw the smoke rising from the Battle of Bull Run.”

10. Conclude memorably . Some speakers just trail off and thank their audiences. It’s better to sum up by saying something they’ll keep in mind. Steve Jobs finished his commencement speech with four words that explained how he revolutionized computing without graduating from college: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

David Kusnet, former chief speechwriter to President Bill Clinton, is the Podesta Group’s senior writer and the author of several books on the economy and American politics. This piece originally appeared in the Podesta Group’s newsletter.


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