Delivering a great speech begins with writing that’s fit for a queen—and a smart fit for your audience.
Anyone who watches “The Crown”—Netflix’s majestic drama about the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign—can attest to the power of oration to shape perceptions, change minds and win favor. The show features several speeches, ranging from pitch-perfect to terrible, which offer ample fodder for those crafting a presentation.
Here are three takeaways from the show for speechwriters to keep in mind:
1. Don’t speak down to people. In season 2, episode 5, the queen delivers a speech at an auto factory to a crowd of blue-collar workers. She reads directly from a script laden with stilted, pretentious language—and outright insults.
“Many of you are living uneventful, lonely lives,” she coldly intones. “Perhaps you don’t understand that on your steadfastness and ability to withstand the fatigue of dull, repetitive work depends in great measure the happiness and prosperity of the community as a whole.”
As you might imagine, the speech does not go over well. A scathing editorial slams the queen’s tone-deaf, aloof delivery, decrying her “pain in the neck” speaking style, and deriding her as a “priggish school girl.”
A scene earlier in the episode portends this disaster, when the queen’s private secretary obliviously rejects a suggested revision of ” average men and women” to a more respectful “working men and women.”
The point is this: Words matter, so select them carefully. This is especially crucial if you write speeches for high-profile leaders. Your executives are probably more grounded than a coddled royal, but we do live in a time when CEOs make roughly 270 times the pay of most workers.
Your execs might not reside in Buckingham Palace, but they inhabit a different world in many ways. What they view as normal is often an unimaginable luxury for the people in the audience, so reconsider that reference to Aspen or Monte Carlo.
2. Set yourself up for success. Another instructive speech moment on “The Crown” occurs when Prince Philip, on a lengthy maritime goodwill tour, addresses his shipmates on deck. A former naval officer, Philip is in his element, despite his lofty position. He immediately sets the men “at ease” and proceeds to playfully rib them about their shoddy soccer play.
He connects on a personal level, even gently breaking ranks with the stodgy admiral overseeing the address by going off script to share how lucky and grateful he feels. He closes with an emotional comment about how wonderful it is to be at sea among such great men.
In this instance, Philip delivers a brilliant speech. It’s extemporaneous, personal, pithy and poignant. (If he had been sent to speak at the auto factory, he, too, probably would have struggled to connect.)
The lesson here: If you have a say in the matter, set yourself (or your client) up to succeed by giving speeches in familiar, comfortable milieus where confidence, conversation and camaraderie come easily.
3. Be personable, relatable and warm. Queen Elizabeth stumbled in her factory speech, but a result of the fallout was her determination to show a warmer, more personal side.
Her Majesty demonstrates this beautifully at the end of the episode, when she delivers the first televised royal Christmas message to be broadcast across the Commonwealth of Nations. (Here’s the actual 1957 address.)
Offering a glimpse of her “home” and using more intimate language help people view the queen more favorably, as the address demonstrates a more genuine, authentic side of her. She looks directly into the camera—not down at a script—and reminds viewers that she is a human being with a family and everyday concerns.
Body language and audience interaction often get overlooked in the speechwriting process, so make sure your eye contact, conversation and mingling match the warm tenor of your speech. Don’t be an emotionless robot.
Speechwriting advice from experts
Before writing a presentation, ask yourself this question before opening your laptop and typing your first word: What is my bright, shiny object—the one thing, more than anything else, that I want my audience to remember?
Once you identify that, think of an anecdote or case study that reinforces that point—a small story that carries big meaning often serves as a useful hook to get you started.
Decide the precise reasons you will giving this presentation. That determines your approach, tone, content, length and all else. Not knowing this is like an airline pilot speaking on the intercom to the passengers: “Two items. We are hopelessly lost—but we’re making great time.”
Before you begin writing, put yourself in the shoes of your audience. What would they want to hear? What would they not want to hear? What would be one takeaway thought you want them thinking when they leave? That one thought is the core of your talk. Now you can write your speech.
Writing and prepping for a speech can be a daunting task, but inspiration (and cautionary tales) are all around us. You might start by binge-watching “The Crown.”