Great orators can change the course of history with the power of their words. They can inspire, comfort, challenge, and enlighten us all at the same time. Their finest speeches live on long after they are gone, often because they address the most pressing issues of their age. But you don't have to be Abraham Lincoln or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to pen a winning speech. In fact, it may be easier than you think!
What the experts say
There was a time when most elected leaders wrote their own addresses and remarks. Nowadays, almost all of them employ professional speechwriters to do the job for them. These experienced scribblers follow a few simple rules when they craft speeches for leaders in government, nonprofits, and the business world. Of course, they can also be used by average people.
Whether writing a presentation
for work or a short lecture for career day at your daughter's school, these tips can help you compose more powerful and persuasive speeches each and every time out.
Read your speech out loud
The reason most of us have a hard time writing speeches is that we learned how to write for readers, not for listeners. It might seem like a minor difference, but believe us, it's not! Readers have come to expect more personal, polished prose, while listeners want the straight scoop in language they can understand. As a result, speechwriters must pay much closer attention to how words sound and feel. They must ask themselves what kind of emotional response a certain phrase or even word is likely to elicit.
A good speechwriter is also aware of the fact that the rules of punctuation don't necessary apply in conversation. Unlike readers, speakers rarely pause for commas or even much for periods. That is why a speech that sounds perfect on the page can sound clunky and awkward when read aloud in a normal, conversational tone.
Keep it short and sweet
In the old days, political candidates would make stump speeches for hours on end. Today, these addresses are much shorter and more succinct, especially with regard to sentence structure. Perhaps it's because we have shorter attention spans these day, but compound phrases and multiple clauses rarely appear in modern speeches. The simple fact is that most people lose interest when they hear someone speaking at length without pausing or even taking a breath. That is why most speech writers pen short sentences designed to keep the audience engaged.
Focus on one idea
In a democracy, everyone has a voice. But with so many people talking, it can be difficult to truly hear anyone. This is a trap most inexperienced speechwriters fall into. They try to address every possible issue and confuse their audiences in the process. An experienced writer, on the other hand, generally limits himself to one idea per sentence. And when the point is salient or important one, he uses clear and powerful language to add emphasis.
Know your subject
Professional speechwriters keep abreast of every issue that might possibly affect their work. They know the numbers and statistics and other relevant information before they put pen to paper. As a new writer, always remember that rhetorical flourishes and memorable turns of phrase take a backseat to facts every time. This is the information audiences want to hear in order to feel full informed.
Know your audience
Just as regular writers must know their readers to give them what they want, speechwriters must know their listeners. They can then adjust the tone, style, even the content of a speech to appeal to a particular audience. Politicians, for example, will often mention local sports teams and famous residents when speaking at smaller venues. This helps them form an immediate bond with their audiences. The amateur speechwriter might utilize this tip at work this tip by mentioning a few things they share in common with their bosses or colleagues in a speech. Just don't overdo it! It's easy to get carried away and look like a sycophant.
Even if you are speaking to a well-informed, highly-educated audience, it is often best to avoid industry argot and simply use layman's language as much as possible. And when speaking to an average audience, never use vernacular that might confuse or embarrass them. That's a surefire way to alienate your listeners.
Keep track of the time
As every experienced speechwriter knows, the two most important parts of any speech are the beginning and the end. In fact, those are the only sections most people remember. It's no wonder some of the most memorable speeches in history were short speeches with great first and last sentences, like Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. So, if have to cut a few things out because of time constraints, don't touch the beginning and the ending.
Use a classic speech structure, when applicable
Many a politician has been elected because he successfully utilized a classic speech structure known as "Problem-Solution." Here's how it works. In the first part of the speech, the speaker identifies a specific problem and attributes it to his opponent. Then, in the second part, he offers his own ideas on how the problem can be solved. Every presidential debate in history has featured this classic speech structure, which has its fair shares of pros and cons for both incumbent and challenger.
For practical purposes, employees who are interested in advancement can easily apply the same method to convince their bosses that the company has major problems that only they can solve...if promoted, of course.
It should go without saying that you must complete several drafts of your speech before you deliver it. As you edit, proofread, and revise, remember that cutting words often helps make your main points more clear. And as we mentioned at the start, always read your speech aloud as you polish it up and prepare it for primetime.