How to write a great speech—guaranteed

Why have most of the best speeches over the last few years been on gay rights? The answer to that question is the secret to great speechwriting.

A small-town newspaper reporter called a few weeks ago, looking for quotes on some cockamamie story her editor dreamed up “tied to the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.” (Yes, because all the residents of Grand Junction, Colorado, turn to you for a perspective on the Magna Carta.)

The reporter asked me and a number of other speechwriting people, “Can a person set out to write ‘enduring words,’ or do words—speeches, plays, poems, essays, novels, etc.—simply endure because they represent a particular moment in time/history or because they’re of a particular beauty?”

I gave her an answer that I’ve found fits most basic questions about what makes good speeches: The way to make an impact is to deliver a speech that only you can deliver to a particular group of people at a particular moment in history. “Do that, and you have a chance—a one in a million chance—to be remembered by history,” I told her. “But if you do that, you have a hundred percent chance of being appreciated by the audience in front of you.”

I’ve been using that line for long enough that it’s making my mouth dry. I’ve got a new idea that amplifies the old one. It hit me as I was putting together a new version of my Speechwriting Jam Session, a changeable, thematic highlight reel of historical and contemporary speeches that I deliver to speechwriting audiences around the world. This one’s kind of a Best of the Best, for the Professional Speechwriting Association’s first Speechwriting School (Oct. 6 in Washington, D.C.).

I’m looking back over all the various Jams I’ve done over the last five years to build a collection that will inspire the Speechwriting School pupils to use their new rhetorical skills to do important work. What struck me was how many of my recent selections speeches centered on a single issue.

These speeches, as I reviewed them, refined and enlarged my philosophy of what makes speeches memorable.

Speeches are great when a speaker expresses a hard-earned point of view…

…on a broad issue (like human rights, as opposed to a narrow one, like this post) that’s coming to a head…

…on which the speaker feels utterly sure, in the face of strong and sincere opposition from others…

so utterly sure, in fact, that the speaker can bring more than blunt moral outrage to the lectern, but can deliver warmth and humor, too.

Like all great speeches, these are compelling because they were delivered by speakers who came by their ideas honestly, tackling a big topic with bedrock conviction and doing so with dignity and style.

That’s what I should have told that Grand Junction scribe, and that’s what I’m going to say at Speechwriting School, unless you tell me I’m all wet—or show me something I’ve missed.

David Murray is editor of Vital Speeches of the Day and executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association.

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