8 tips every speechwriter must know

Quote unusual sources, create suspense, and do yourself a big favor—don’t ignore the squirrel.

Speechwriting is a highly specialized craft with a unique set of demands and quirks. Fortunately, it’s also tremendously rewarding—monetarily, sure, but also through the potential to change people’s minds and move them to action.

Here are eight tips that every speechwriter must know:

1. Tell a story

If you want to upgrade your speechwriting skills, the best and simplest tip I have is this: Tell a story.

So many speeches are like grocery lists of the points you need to make, the facts you need to convey, and the ideas your client wants to advance. But there’s a reason you have to write down grocery lists. If you didn’t, they would be impossible to remember. If all you’re doing is firing off data in your speech, your audience won’t have a lot of luck remembering what you say, either.

Although we aren’t all that great at remembering streams of data, we are superb at remembering structure—particularly the structure of a story.

There are a number of ways to describe that structure: beginning, middle, end; problem, complication, resolution; inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement, etc. Go with whatever feels the most comfortable for you. Your audience members will respond to the structure, because they have been responding to stories since they were babies.

Once you’ve found a natural story structure for your speech, start using the same techniques other storytellers use to engage their audiences—suspense, for example.

Be sure to keep the structure simple. Identify the central conflict in your story, let the development of that conflict be the spine of your speech, and bring it to a satisfying resolution.

2. Ask your client what they want to accomplish

Your client is hot to trot with a new speech assignment. Great! But when you asked what the speech was about, all you got was a meandering series of barely related ideas, factoids, anecdotes and arguments. What are you going to do?

To focus your client’s attention, ask what he wants the audience to do after the speech. Writing down this information and giving it to the speechwriter accomplishes two things:

  • It gives the writer the specific direction she or he needs to do the job right the first time.
  • It forces the client to confront just how pointless his speech may be, and can jolt him into embracing something a lot more powerful.

3. Use repetition

You’ve just made a telling point, and you really want it to sink in. How do you do it?

You repeat the phrase. You repeat the phrase. Word for word.

Repetition works best with short, simple sentences:

“Failure is a better teacher than success. (pause) Failure is a better teacher than success.”

It’s best to use this technique sparingly and judiciously, but it can be very powerful.

Advertisers and PR professionals know that repetition is one of the keys to any message’s success. For you, it’s a signal to your audience that this phrase is worth remembering, as well as a tool to help them do just that.

4. Excerpt the unexpected

When we think of sources for quotations, we usually think of political leaders and great works of literature, but not much else.

The members of your audience are constantly bombarded with messages, and there are sources that may resonate with them more strongly than some long-dead statesman. Look to books, films, pop songs, TV shows and even commercials. One high point of a speech I wrote a few years ago was a quotation from the movie “Mars Attacks!” Also, try sources from cultures other than your own or your audience’s.

This is a way to knock your listeners off balance just enough to open their minds to your message.

5. Want to break in? Give a little bit.

Want to become a professional speechwriter? There are many ways to break into the business, but one of the best ways to start writing for money is to start writing for free.

Find a cause, candidate or organization you support personally, and offer to write a speech either for free or at a steep discount. Why do I suggest working for someone you support personally? Because your passion is going to shine through. And, if you won’t be paid in money, you at least deserve to be compensated with the knowledge that you’re making a difference.

Make it the best speech you possibly can. Treat your speaker like a client—work with him to tailor the language to his personal idiom, and turn your draft into a pitch he can knock out of the ballpark.

What could you get out of it? Three invaluable things:

  • A superb piece for your portfolio
  • A new, grateful addition to your professional network
  • A speaker who mentions your name when people ask, “Who wrote that terrific speech?”

6. Not every gig is the right gig

There are speeches for which the audience goes wild with enthusiasm, your speaker knocks ’em dead and the media eats it up. Everyone comes out ahead.

Then there are those other speeches—the speaking invitations you regret accepting for years afterward, and the events your speaker shouldn’t have touched with a nine-foot boom mike.

How do you tell the difference?

There’s no cut-and-dried answer, but there are two ways you can give your next invitation a cold, hard look.

The first is to weigh your costs versus your benefits. Consider the cost of accepting the invitation—the time you and your speaker will spend preparing, research time, travel costs, and attention distracted from other things. Balance those costs against the benefits—prestige, good will, the ability to convey a message you need to deliver—and measure it all against the organization’s strategic communication goals.

The second way is to evaluate risk and opportunity. Imagine everything that could go wrong, from embarrassment to hostility. Then imagine that everything that could go right, from great media coverage to a new sale.

Compare these two pictures. If it comes up as a net win, go for it.

If you’re sending your speaker a long distance to deliver a speech that will take weeks to write on a topic your client barely cares about to a crowd of thirty belligerent cranks at an event that the media won’t cover, this might not be the event for you.

7. Talk about the squirrel

I used to work as a tour guide in Ottawa. Busloads of seniors came in from south of the border, and I showed them the sights, including Rideau Hall and the residence of Canada’s Governor General.

The first few times I did it, I waxed rhapsodic at the front of the bus about the Governor General’s role in Canadian politics, and how the stone fence surrounding Rideau Hall was a public works project during the Great Depression, but not a person was listening.

Instead, the tourists’ noses and cameras were pressed against the windows on the opposite side of the bus. They oohed and aahed over something completely different—black squirrels.

Apparently, the squirrels where my tourists came from were all gray. A black squirrel? That was something to write home about, and a lot more interesting than my disquisition on the 1930s-era employment policy.

The first few times this happened, I tried to chivvy my audience back to the other side of the bus. A few folks were kind enough to tear themselves away so as not to hurt the feelings of the nice young man with the microphone, but even they kept sneaking looks at the rodents.

Eventually it occurred to me that I should talk about the darn squirrels. At first I just joked about them, trying to redirect my audience’s attention, but ultimately I had to address the squirrel itself. I told them that this was a particular strain of the eastern gray squirrel they were used to, and how they tend to live in cities, where there are fewer predators.

Chances are your audience has a squirrel on its mind, too. You need to address it if you want to keep everyone’s attention, even if it’s just a passing reference. That way they won’t keep wondering if you’ll ever talk about it.

8. Build a mystery

Storytellers have known for centuries that one of the keys to holding an audience’s attention is to dangle an unanswered question in front of it: “How will this story turn out?” Will Beowulf defeat the monster? Will Hamlet avenge his father?

Your speech may not have the same life-and-death stakes as those stories, but your audience can still feel the same suspense. All you have to do is start your speech with an intriguing question and delay giving the answer.

If it’s a less important question, you probably want to wait only a minute or two before answering it. But if the question is central to your speech, you could lead with it and wait until your conclusion to give the answer.

Rob Cottingham is the principal of Social Signal. He blogs at RobCottingham.ca, and draws the Noise to Signal Web comic. A version of this article originally ran on Squidoo.com.


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