6 quick tips to boost your speechwriting

Cut the thank-yous. Start bold. Take inspiration from ‘Star Wars.’ Even pros can learn new tricks to improve the punch of their words.


Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s distance-learning portal RaganTraining.com. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

It’s unlikely that you want to get rejected when you submit your brilliance to the respected speechwriting venue, “Vital Speeches of the Day”?

Yet the way certain leaders push writers to lard speech scripts with thank-yous and long-winded jokes, one might conclude they are trying to get turned down at “Vital Speeches.”

That’s a problem, says Editor David Murray, because the techniques that might earn you glory in the magazine that publishes great speeches are precisely those that keep your audiences gazing intently at the speaker instead of peering down at their smartphones.

Murray and a panel of top speechwriters offer tips in the new Ragan Training session, “30 ideas in 30 minutes.” Their guidance goes beyond speeches, offering techniques for those trying to keep readers awake in many other formats.

Here are some tips:

1. Get to the point.

Murray often rejects speeches before reading all the way through. Unfair! Give the poor writer a chance, right?

Wrong. As it turns out, audiences are turned off by the same things that cause Murray to mark your speech in red ink with his jumbo REJECTED stamp: dull beginnings.

“Does this speech have a really long list of acknowledgement?” he says. “Does it have a leisurely opening joke, or other throat-clearing techniques? Am I on page three before it appears that an idea might possibly be shared during the course of this speech? If so, I’m going to start to think that an empty limousine pulled up and your speaker got out.”

2. Take inspiration from the ‘Star Wars’ theme

You remember the music: big, bold, dramatic. Make your speech openings like that, says Gregory Bell, senior speechwriter to the secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. He contrasts that with the “Superman” theme, which starts out softer. Go bold.

“We did a poverty speech about how communities affect the outcomes of children,” Bell says. “So rather than cite statistics or a long list of acknowledgements, we started out with three stories about children who’ve been impacted in terms of their health, in terms of their schools, in terms of their lifespan—simply because of where they live.”

It worked for the audience, he says: “It woke them up right away.”

3. Fill your mind with great speeches

All good wordsmiths read excellent writing. It’s how you improve. But how many of us listen to stirring oratory?

Don’t waste that treadmill time at the TV. When you are working out or are in the car, listen to great speeches, says Luke Boggs, director of executive communications for The Coca-Cola Company.

“You know what a great speech sounds like if you listen to them,” Boggs says.

In college, Boggs used to listen to cassette tapes of U2, REM and President Ronald Reagan’s speeches. “If Reagan’s not your guy, pick your guy or your lady, or get a collection of great speeches from different people,” he says.

4. Stop early. Now read it aloud

Mark Twain once asserted, “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Rosemary King—a speechwriter who has written for nonprofits, for-profits, four-star generals and members of Congress—cites Twain’s quotation in urging writers to take time to think.

How to find the right word? When she has a speech due at 4 p.m., she’ll stop writing at 1 or 2 p.m. and read it aloud.

“It’s amazing: When I read my work aloud, you’ll hear those one or two words that could be more precise or maybe are not the right word,” King says.

5. Speak publicly

Want to know which words and phrases work in speeches? Practice public speaking on your own, says Larry Parnell, program director of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

Speak to a club or at a school. Accept that offer to be an adjunct faculty member. You’ll experience new insights into the rhythms of words.

6. Limit or omit plugs for your organization

Another way to get your speech rejected at “Vital Speeches” is to slip in endless plugs for your organization. The same goes for other audiences. They want to hear about themselves and your issue as it relates to society, Murray says.

“Keep the number of times you reference the name of your organization and words associated with that to six per speech—or zero per speech,” he says.

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