PART I of II
As a PR pro, writing speeches can be one of the most challenging things to do. It becomes especially difficult when writing a speech for someone else, like your CEO, COO or another C-suite executive, whether you’re in-house or at the company’s agency of record. In my mind, there is no better spokesperson for your company than the person in charge. Whenever there is a chance to use an executive as a spokesperson or as a speechmaker, put him or her front and center rather than speaking yourself. Your executives are whom audiences want to hear, so keep yourself out of the spotlight and help your executives shine instead.
Let’s start with issues to consider when developing speeches and then move to tactics that can make writing speeches for your executives easier.
It’s important to note that you’ll never write the perfect speech in the first draft.The only times you can come close are when you’ve worked with a particular executive for a long time or if you have an executive who is completely afraid of public speaking (most aren’t) and will read your words verbatim. So take it easy on yourself. The idea is to draft a document that you and your executive can work with to get just right for the occasion. You’ll likely go through several drafts of a speech before both of you are happy with the result.
Executives are individuals, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing a speech. So talk to your executive about what they like when it comes to speech documents.
Many of the executives I’ve worked with prefer detailed bullet points in a particular order rather than a fully written speech. Some prefer an outline. The more you provide them with information in a format that they’re comfortable with, the better chance you have of your executive giving a successful speech that people will actually listen to.
It’s also key that your speaker comes across as an actual human with real feelings. Humanizing the head of a multi-million-dollar company or the head of a local chamber of commerce is equally important, and doing so requires you get to know the speaker. The more interaction you have with them before you’re called on to write a speech, the better. You’ll get a sense of what’s really important to them, which will help you identify opportunities to interject their personality into the speech (whether it’s an anecdote about their children or a reference to their favorite hobby). If they take it out, you’ve done your best, but try to stress to your executive the importance of coming across as a real person when in a public speaking environment.
Let’s move to tactics that will help you when writing a speech for someone.
Do Your Research
Writing a speech is a lot like writing anything else: You must do your research. This not only includes research on the subject, it also includes research on the executive giving the speech. If you’re new to the company or organization or are working for a firm, see if you can have at least a 30-minute one-on-one conversation with the executive, and take a tape recorder.
Better, take the person to lunch. This gets them out of the office, and you might see a more personal side. This is helpful even if you’re a seasoned speechwriter and already are familiar with whom you’ll be writing the speech for. Ask pointed questions on his or her views about the company’s direction as well as questions related to the event. Find out what he or she thinks are the key messages. Then compare them with your own and have a discussion about them. Go back to your office and transcribe the conversation. Chances are, you’ll have a big chunk of your speech written for you in the transcript.
This exercise also helps to create a structure for your speech, which is imperative in keeping the audience’s attention. Audiences expect a path and a destination from a speaker, as well as clues to where you’re going with the speech and why. I have written what I thought were some good speeches, only to have the executive go off on a tangent midway through the speech.
This brings us to my next tip, the Golden Rule of speech writing: Keep it short. Keep the speech short and to the point. I’ve worked with executives who, despite having a great speech on the podium, liked to endlessly pontificate about irrelevant issues simply because they enjoyed the spotlight. If you work with such a person, hire a media trainer to convince this executive that short and to the point is the way to go.
Part of making any speech memorable is repetition. As with a song, treat your key message as a refrain. There are some easy ways to do this:
1. Create a memorable phrase and repeat it at least three times over the course of the speech.
2. If you’re writing a series of connected bullet points for your executive instead of a full-text speech, include the phrase three times in the bullets in all caps.
3. You can also find different ways to say the same thing. If you’re talking about the importance of community service, find three examples of nonprofits your organization has helped to drive home your point. If it’s an employee event, tell the story of how three individual employees have helped their community.
Another part of making your speech memorable is insuring the spirit of the message matches the tone of the event. Does it bring out the best in people? Poet Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So make sure your executive understands the importance of leaving people with a smile and a greater sense of hope and purpose.
In my experience, it’s often helpful to save writing the opening of the speech for later in the processrather than trying to start with some engaging anecdote or shocking fact and then trying to build your speech around your opening.Keep in mind that your opening needs to hit fast and hard, because you’ll be losing audience members every minute your executive is speaking. Even with a really good speech, you start losing people after the first 60 seconds or so. See if you can keep the introduction to less than 15% of the entire speech.
Editor’s Note:Part II of this article will appear next week.
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