Speechwriting: Speaking to Be Heard and Understood

The words “speech” and “talk” can be used interchangeably for a reason: A speaker should always sound as if he or she is talking to the audience rather than reading a script.

A smart guy like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke should know that. But in his April 14, 2009, speech at Morehead College, he inflicted the following muddled statement upon his audience (one of many such sentences he spoke that day):

"Unfortunately, much of this lending was poorly done, involving, for example, little or no down payment by the borrower or insufficient consideration by the lender of the borrower’s ability to make the monthly payments."

No one talks like that. He could have reduced that monstrosity to: “Unfortunately, lenders made bad loans,” saving 29 words and lots of unnecessary detail. Was he being paid by the word?

Mr. Bernanke made a common speaker’s mistake: Paying more attention to what he was saying than to what the audience was hearing. Audiences have precious little time to process words as they are spoken, as there is no going back to reread. Brain scientists tell us it’s a function of “working memory,” or the ability of the brain to retain ideas long enough to make sense of them (think of it as the human equivalent of your computer’s RAM). The older we get, the less working memory there is to work with.

Speechwriters should take their cue from broadcast journalists—kindred spirits who also have only one fleeting chance to get it right. In the classic journalism text Writing News for Broadcast, authors Edward Bliss, Jr., and John M. Patterson comment as follows on a script by the legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow (it doesn’t matter which one; all Murrow’s scripts are equally praiseworthy):

“The sentences are readable. They are short. They are to the point. There is no fancy, involved writing … The style is simple and straightforward. This is copy to be read aloud, to be heard once and, with only that one hearing, to be understood.”

As a speechwriter, pity the poor audience and its limited working memory. Focus on what they’re hearing. Keep your words simple, your phrases manageable, and your sentences easy to read, hear and understand.

Robert J. DeRosa has been a freelance speechwriter and public relations advisor in Penfield, NY since 1990. He can be reached at [email protected], or via www.bobderosa.com.