Ask these 4 questions to craft strong speeches

Well chosen words have the power to inspire. Ask yourself these critical questions before you begin writing your next speech.

Words are powerful.

They have the ability to heal and hurt, build up or break down, and start fights and stop wars.

A wise man once said, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue …”

And it was Mark Twain who said …“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

If Twain was right, can you imagine what the difference is between the right word and the wrong word?

When you’re preparing a speech, how do you know which words are the “right” ones to use? Before beginning to write, ask these four critical questions:

1. Should the tone be formal or informal?

Most speeches should be written using an informal tone. Speeches that use an informal tone are conversational in nature. But don’t be fooled—not all speeches are meant to be conversational. There are times when giving a formal speech is more appropriate, particularly when a message from an institution must be delivered.

A message from an individual might say, “After reviewing the proposals, we decided to go with plan A.”

A message from an institution, however, might state, “After reviewing the proposals, it was decided that plan A would be used.”

If you’ve ever played the game of corporate politics, you know that sometimes it’s prudent to use a formal tone.

2. What words will resonate with the audience?

Word on the street is that you should always avoid using jargon in your speeches. This is often true, but not always. If you have a mixed audience that doesn’t understand the technical terminology or buzz words of your industry, then it’s best to use plain language. But if your audience is well versed in the jargon of your industry, they’ll salivate when properly placed acronyms and technical terms are tossed around.

This is not to say you should go overboard with the jargon, but “advanced” audiences will often hold you in higher regard when you can speak their language.

3. What will my audience think about this topic?

Sometimes you will be preaching to the choir. At other times you will be trying to convert non-believers. Each audience will require a different approach.

When an audience agrees with your point of view, you can front load your statements with words such as “clearly,” “obviously,” or “without a doubt.”

If your audience holds a different point of view, you would be better off using softeners such as “more often than not,” “speaking in general,” or “there are exceptions to this rule …” The softeners will allow you to approach sensitive topics in such a way that the audience will more likely hear you out before tuning you out.

4. What is my intended effect?

Do you want to paint pictures with your words, reference a popular speech or speaker, or stir up an emotional response from your audience?

With a clear understanding of your intentions, you will have greater success in choosing the right words for your speech.

In 1961, FCC chairman Newton Minow spoke to the National Association of Broadcasters, giving them a clear picture of what he thought of their programming. He said, “Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

Even if a picture does say 1000 words, you don’t need that many to paint a vivid picture. You just need the right words.

When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, he used the words “five score years ago.” King wanted to evoke the presence of the great emancipator Abraham Lincoln, who began the Gettysburg Address with the words “four score and seven years ago.”

Once Lincoln’s presence had been felt, King immediately switched to and repeated the phrase “100 years later.” He only needed to use the right words once to achieve his desired effect.

Words are powerful.

When you know how to choose the right words for your speeches, there’s a good chance you will be able to predict when lightning will strike.

John Watkis is a freelance speechwriter. Read his blog at

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