How long should it take to write a speech?

The axiom that ‘work expands to fill the time allotted’ rings true—to an extent. Certain factors can help you determine whether you’ll compose those brilliant remarks in weeks, or minutes.

How long does it take to write a speech?

A questioner on Quora asked that very thing a while ago, as well as inquiring about what factors affect the timeframe.

In an election campaign, I’ve smashed out seven-minute speeches—while the plane was landing—that the speaker would deliver immediately upon descending to the tarmac.

I’ve also worked on speeches off and on for weeks in advance of major events.

Here are some key variables:

  • Time available: Sometimes you just have to do what you can before a painfully tight deadline, and you adjust your ambitions accordingly. Yes, you’d like to craft rhetoric that will endure through the ages, the kind of speech that schoolchildren will recite a hundred years from now. Meanwhile, the new parking deck opens in half an hour, and that ribbon ain’t gonna cut itself.
  • Budget available: How much of my time the client can pay for can be a big limiting factor. (I’ll always put enough time in that I’m confident in the speech I’m handing over.)
  • Research: How much information is readily available (and easily assimilated), and how much will I have to dig up myself? Do they have examples and anecdotes they’re comfortable with (and that have been fact-checked and confirmed)?
  • Clarity: Maybe the client knows the gist of what they want to say but just needs someone to flesh it out and put it into memorable, engaging words. Or maybe we must talk that through. Often I find clients think they know what they want to say, but the moment you try to give it structure and substance, that illusion fades away.
  • Consistency: Whether they come from clients’ changing their collective mind about the speech’s direction, or from a situation and environment that are shifting constantly, changes are going to require more time—sometimes going right back to first principles.
  • Revisions: I rarely need more than two rounds. If I do, it’s a sign that either I’ve screwed up or the client has changed his or her mind.
  • Humor: If you want a lot of jokes, it’s going to take longer (unless the inspiration fairy decides to pay me a visit, and the laughs start flowing naturally).
  • Familiarity: If I know the clients and their area well, things can go much more quickly. The first time I write about a particular subject, there’ll be added time while I look up terminology and vernacular and find examples that the particular audience will relate to.

Typically, I can finish the first draft of a 20- to 30-minute speech in a few days, provided I get clear direction and have an agreed-upon narrative arc. (Speechwriters, note that the “get” in “get clear direction” is an active verb. You have to ask for it, sometimes persistently, often asking the same question in different ways.)

What’s typical for you, and what’s the fastest you’ve ever pounded out a speech?

A version of this article originally appeared on Rob Cottingham’s blog.

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