Speech-Writing Lessons From the Trenches

Tis the season to hear speeches. It’s all too clear right now that a well-written speech delivered with the right mix of rhetorical passion and inflection has the power to stir crowds and change public opinion. Witness the reception accorded Republican vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, following her turn at the podium at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. Palin may not have authored her speech (it was penned by one of President Bush’s former speechwriters, according to Time), yet she infused it with so much conviction that she was able to effectively sell herself to many (including those poised in the center of the political spectrum) as a viable running mate to the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain.

Palin’s ideology notwithstanding, her speech has tightened a presidential election that had already been a close race to begin with. It’s just one of many examples of how important speeches—and, more specifically, the speech-writing process—are to shifting public opinion or to driving action, whether the stage is political, business or otherwise.

 “A good speech is one that resonates with the audience that you’re trying to reach,” says David Bartlett, senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications. “It is one that is delivered, not read, and therefore it must be written for the ear. A corollary for that is if you’re writing a speech for someone else, you must be attuned to their voice.”

Bartlett’s statement raises a key point: Behind every good speech is a skilled communications professional who must shape messaging around an issue and embody the personality of the person in the spotlight: a CEO, politician, spokesperson, etc. What, then, are the best practices for being the proverbial Cyrano de Bergerac of business communications and getting your organization’s thought leader in front of an audience with a potent message?

â–¶ Weave a recurrent theme throughout the speech. “There has to be a single thought that an audience is going to remember from a speech 24 hours later,” says Tim Hayes, a professional speechwriter whose roster of clients include those from “the smallest start-ups” to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. “The challenge is when a speaker wants to cover a lot more points than can be recalled by an audience. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as everything steers back to that single takeaway idea.”

â–¶ Have face time with your client. This is key because it gives you an idea of the speaking style of your client and what kind of vocabulary he/she uses. Sometimes, though, clients are not readily available. In that case, read transcripts of previous presentations they’ve given. If possible, watch videotapes and listen to audio archives to get a feel for their body language and cadence.

â–¶ Consider the audience. What is the demographic? What is the organization sponsoring the event? What is their expectation for the speaker? How many people are expected to be there?
“The key to communication in general and making a speech in particular is to catch the rhythm and concern of the audience you’re trying to reach,” says Bartlett, who has written numerous speeches for clients ranging from public to private sector organizations, and who is the author of Making Your Point: Communicating Effectively With Audiences of One to One Million (St. Martin’s Press). “It seems so simple and obvious, but it is often overlooked.”
Also, it’s important to consider the time of day the speech will be given, notes Hayes, who heads his own eponymous communications firm. “If it’s after lunch, that’ll be different than after morning because people are apt to be more drowsy then. That affects how you’re going to write the speech—what language you’re going to use.”

â–¶ Don’t pack the speech with inappropriate content and context. Hayes cites as an example one of the first speeches he was commissioned to write for a midlevel manager at a public utility company, when Hayes’ freshman excitement got the better of him.
“[The client] was going to speak at a statewide conference in Harrisburg, Pa., on environmental protection,” he recalls. “The basic facts were very dry. But what I did was pack every quote from Winston Churchill I could find in this poor guy’s speech. It was ridiculous.” Making matters worse, the client’s raw presentation was exacerbated by his visible lack of rehearsal. The incident was an important lesson learned for Hayes in his future dealings with clients.

â–¶ Have a dress rehearsal, but first do your research. Hayes’ experience with his client in Pennsylvania leads to another key point.
“Don’t let your speaker get up in front of a group without saying that presentation aloud to you at first,” he says. This is essential because the speech should sound as if it naturally flows from the speaker, not the writer.
To accomplish this, the first thing Hayes does after being hired by a client and getting an idea of what he/she wants is to conduct additional research (i.e. interviews, etc.). This process gives the speech a context that it would otherwise lack; plus, it conveys a well-rounded body of knowledge to the audience, thus increasing the speaker’s credibility.

â–¶ Don’t assume the first draft is ready for the podium. The best speeches go through numerous revisions and the hands of both the writer and the speaker.
“I write a detailed outline, which goes back to the client,” Hayes says. “But at that point, it’s not a speech. That’s a research paper.” To develop a speech from a research paper, you listen to the speaker and adapt it to their cadence.
Bartlett calls this part of the process “a table read,” a term adopted from the practice that the cast, writers and production team of a TV sitcom like to employ before shooting an episode. Here they will sit around a conference table and read the script aloud for the first time. This is very telling for the writers because the jokes that might have read well in the script could fall flat when read aloud, and will have to be fixed.
“The same is true with a speech,” he explains. “[When I write a speech for a client,] I sit across a table from whomever is delivering the speech and go through it with them line by line to see if they can say the words. Punctuation is irrelevant. It’s where you pause and where you emphasize that’s important. The only way you know for sure is to read it aloud. Then when it comes time to put it on the teleprompter or wherever, you’re reasonably assured it’s going to work.”

â–¶ Evoke a sense of passion, regardless of the topic. For Bartlett, an example of a successful speech was one that he wrote and delivered at a digital age conference in Taiwan.
“I knew something about the subject. I was passionate about it but I also knew something about the audience and what they were interested in,” he says. “The reason why it worked was it was about them not about me.” PRN

Contacts: Tim Hayes, tim@timothy-hayes.com; David Bartlett, dbartlett@levick.com