10 tips for better speechwriting

Whether preparing your own presentation or an address for a colleague or client to deliver, apply these principles.

People tell us they don’t know how to begin or what to include when they need to write a speech. There isn’t one formula that will fit every speechwriting project, but the following tips will give you ideas on what to do the next time you have to write a speech.

1. Create a clear and simple message.

Before you begin, define your message and stick to it. Don’t try to make too many points. Attempting to cover too much ground in a short time will confuse your audience. If you are speaking for 10 minutes, for example, you will have enough time to convey one message. Summarize this message in one sentence, and keep it in front of you while writing your speech.

2. Know your audience, and write for them.

The type of audience you’re addressing will determine what you say and how you say it. For example, in handling a technical subject you must define your terms and explain more if the audience members are not experts. If they know the subject, you can explain less.

If you have both groups in the audience, you might say something like, “For those of you who don’t know…” and then explain it to them. Sometimes you won’t know your listeners’ level of understanding, so you will need to ask questions and adjust your speech accordingly.

3. Write the way you usually speak.

A speech should not be written like an article, essay, or report. For example, most people use contractions (I’ll, we’ll, can’t, he’s, we’re, it’s) when they speak—so write your speech that way. This also applies to the types of terms you use. Instead of however, write but. In place of therefore, write so. Copywriters call this conversational tone, and it’s important to maintain this tone in your speechwriting.

4. Create a connection with your audience.

If you’re speaking to an unfamiliar group, develop ways to connect with them. If you were speaking to a community group, for example, you would want to find out who they are, what they do, and what they believe. Then use this knowledge to create a connection between you and your audience.

For example, you could compare the group’s values to those of your organization. It will help if the group you are addressing has a website or other background information.

Once when we were writing a speech for a business that was sponsoring an arts organization, we were finding it challenging to connect to the two organizations. After doing some research, we found that both organizations had been established in the same year. This commonality helped to connect the speaker to the audience at the beginning of the speech.

5. Use stories to make your point.

From early childhood we develop an appreciation for stories and the ideas they communicate. When you use stories in your speech writing, you are conveying your message in an entertaining and memorable way.

For example, a CEO speaking about the need for change at his organization can tell a story about a company that couldn’t change and, as a result, failed. On the positive side, the business leader could tell a story about a business that succeeded because it did change.

Plenty of resource material is available if you are willing to spend some time researching. Personal stories are often the best if they are relevant to what you are speaking about, so it’s a good idea to write down interesting stories you hear or experience. For more information on using stories in your speechwriting, go to Speech Writing: How to Create Impact With Stories.

6. Use quotations to support your ideas.

Including a few quotations from authorities and experts gives support to your message. By adding quotations you show that other people agree with your idea. For more information on using quotations in your speechwriting, go to Speech Writing: How to Use Quotations in Speeches and Presentations.

7. Use facts, figures, and statistics when appropriate.

A well-written speech will balance emotion and logic. Using facts, figures, and statistics from reputable sources will support your message with a logical foundation.

Be careful not to overload your presentation with too much information in a short time. Doing so will overwhelm the audience and lessen its effectiveness.

8. Use humor to help your audience relax and enjoy your speech.

Humor does not necessarily mean telling jokes. If you are not the type of person who enjoys telling jokes to your family and friends, don’t try telling jokes in your speeches. It’s best to use relevant humorous stories that you have experienced or heard. If you can’t think of any of these, use a humorous quote on the subject.

For example, if you are speaking about computers and want to add humor, you can Google “humorous computer quotes” and find many sites with funny quotes about computers that you can use when writing your speech. Avoid humor that might be offensive. As an accomplished motivational speaker once said, “If in doubt, leave it out.”

9. End with a strong conclusion that reinforces your message.

Your speech conclusion is a crucial time when you can make a lasting impact on your audience. When writing your conclusion, ask yourself, “What do I want my listeners to take away or do as a result of my speech?” Some speechwriters even suggest writing the conclusion first, because it sums up the message you want to deliver and will help you focus on the key message when writing the opening and body of the speech. For ideas on writing a speech conclusion, go to Speech Writing: Seven Ways to Conclude a Speech for Maximum Impact.

10. Edit your speech to make it clearer and more concise.

You will have to go through several drafts to improve your speech. If you have a limited time to speak, you will want to limit your speech to between 100 and 150 words per minute (depending on how quickly you speak). Cut out anything that doesn’t support your message. Read your speech aloud, and rewrite sentences that might be ambiguous, too complex, or difficult to articulate. Readability scales, such as Flesch-Reading Ease, can be a useful tool to simplify your speechwriting.

Michael Gladkoff is the principal speechwriter at Word Nerds Writing and Editing, where a version of this article originally appeared. He also writes about copywriting, business writing, and editing at the Word Nerds blog.

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