Speeches: 5 elements that matter more than the writing

You don’t have to write like Cicero, Lincoln, or Churchill to draft a great speech. Just remember the yellow bathtub ducky—and use emotion.


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Some time ago, industrial designers at a conference in Washington, D.C., highlighted their most amazing gadgets for homes and work.

Funny thing, though. None of the Jetsons-type futuristic gizmos made The Washington Post the next day, says veteran speechwriter Fletcher Dean.

Instead the Post wrote about one old, low-tech design. “It was this: a simple yellow rubber duck,” Dean says, holding aloft the toddler’s toy.

A speaker mentioned carcinogens used in the manufacture of the duck—which often end up in the mouths of toddlers and teething babies. He scored big-time coverage not through Ciceronian prose, but by connecting emotionally with his listeners: Why in the world would we design, with intent, a product like this for our children to use?

“You do not have to be a great writer to create a great speech,” says Dean, who is director of leadership communication at Dow Chemical Co. and author of “10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech.

This was a heartbreaking lesson for Dean, who has always considered himself to be foremost a writer. The good news, however, is this approach relieves you of the burden of writing a great speech.

Here are five things that Dean says are more important than writing when crafting your speech:

1. Know your audience.

Dean cites an executive who once said giving a speech without understanding the audience is like writing a love letter and addressing it “To Whom It May Concern.”

“It’s not going to be warm,” Dean says. “It’s not going to be sincere. You’re going to miss out on all the personal things that make a speech a speech.”

Instead, create and fill out an audience analysis form, which asks detailed questions. Get the organizers to help you answer it. Among the questions:

  • How many people will be there?
  • What are their issues?
  • What are their job titles?
  • What’s the biggest problem facing all of them?

2. Know your purpose.

Many speakers begin with “thank you all for coming,” Dean says. Aaaaghhhhh! Don’t! Begin at the end: What do you want them to know? What do you want them to believe? Answer this question before you put your fingers on the keyboard.

“Determining what you want to say before you know what you want to accomplish is kind of like packing your suitcase for vacation before you know where you’re going,” Dean says. “If you’re not careful, you could end up in Hawaii with nothing but long underwear and a parka.”

3. Focus your message.

Researchers at the University of Michigan and at Virginia Tech studied how people value what they receive, Dean says. They gave gifts to two groups of people:

  • Group A got a cashmere sweater.
  • Group B got the same sweater and a $10 gift card.

When asked, the people who received only the sweater valued their gift more. That’s because people tended to average out the two gifts in their minds, devaluing the expensive sweater.

The same thing is true of communications. Piling on points weakens your speech. The study Dean cites explicitly makes this point: “The addition of mildly favorable information dilutes the impact of highly favorable information to the audience,” he says.

4. Let the audience in on your structure.

You have to give a structure in advance that matches the material and lets them know where you’re going. Give them a recognizable agenda: Today I will be discussing five points.

He notes that in his own talk at a Ragan conference, he told the audience he would make five points. “So, if you’re sitting there with a full bladder, you’re thinking, ‘One more point. I can last one more point,'” he says.

Dean recommends using Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, a five-step structure. It requires you to: grab an audience’s attention, describe their problem, find a solution, help them visualize their future if your solution is implemented, and call them to action.

5. Emotion.

You must connect with your audience emotionally, Dean says. He cites an NPR interview in which photographer Steve Liss was asked why he is chronicling poverty in America in what amounts to visual storytelling.

He replied, “Anecdotes trump facts every day, and my photos are just visual anecdotes.”

Don’t just list the facts or rely on logic, Dean says. Tell stories that connect emotionally with your audience.

“If you really want to connect, do it with emotion,” Dean says.

@r_working

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