How to start a speech: Begin already

The best way to write a speech is to plunge right in. Or so wrote Q.E.D., the pen name of a successful oil company speechwriter who contributed to Speechwriters Newsletter many years ago —ed.

Somebody said to me the other day: “But how do you get the speech started?” From the desperation in the final word, I suspected that my interrogator had a speech assignment, had done the research, outlined an approach even if only mentally, and was having trouble launching a first draft.

It seems to me that the ambitious young writer generally finds this more of a problem than the relaxed young writer. If, for instance, you hire a newspaper reporter to write speeches, the reporter is always so amazed to find himself, or herself, in this spacious, well-lighted, quiet place (“You mean I’m going to have this little cubicle all to myself?”), that he or she has no trouble getting started even if you ask for an epic.
If, for example, you said, “Gimme a thousand lines, rhymed couplets for oral recitation, covering Royko’s resignation from the Sun Times.” Young writer rolls up to the machine at once and types: “Down under is over for Royko the rover” and is working on line two before you walk away. But the ambitious writer wants every word to please, every memo to scintillate, every sentence to hold a diamond of significance: and so the agony. How—exactly, superbly, brilliantly—must I begin?

Begin already.

That is the best advice.

Launch, jump, start, say anything, just get going. And keep going on this initial impulse until you have a hundred words or so.

Begin with your subject: whatever is suggested by the first of your index cards or the first entry on your outline. Say whatever comes into your head about that first entry. “The day we closed the Toonerville plant was the worst day in my life,” or “The day we shut the gates at Toonerville was a great relied for all of u,” or whatever. Don’t think about tact, or style, or clearances.

For this hour bury your ambition; do nothing about what you should put in this speech to persuade them that you should obviously be senior VP for communications and the person to whom your boss’s boss reports. That is a wonderful and fun-filled idea, but it impedes your launch. It is too much weight to load upon your first paragraph.
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Begin as you begin a walk—not a marathon, not even a day hike—but as though you were walking to the store. Take off before you think too much.

As you write more speeches I think you learn to star where you should start, around paragraph nine or 10. For a long time you have to write those first nine useless paragraphs and later throw them away. It seems to me that after several years of this you learn to start at graph six, and only have three graphs to throw away before the real beginning. Eventually you learn to start at paragraph 10, and then you don’t have to write the first useless nine.

The ambitious young writer gets hung up because he or she is trying to write that real beginning, the tenth paragraph. Better they should write the nine; certainly easier, quicker, less painful. The boss will likely deliver these first useless nine (What does Honcho know about beginnings?) but there is rarely any harm in that.

In today’s world, not many books, or play, or movies, or TV dramas open crisply. All of us have to suffer the nine useless graphs. It won’t hurt Honcho’s audience to do the same for a while.

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