Don’t Be the Dud: Speechwriting Tips to Make Your Presentation Sing

The very thought of writing a speech, let alone giving one, is enough to cause cold sweats for many of us. And if you're in the audience for a snoozy presentation—well, that's torture too.

But women, in particular, are socialized to be modest and polite, which often translates into low-energy delivery. As sassy British stand-up comedian and journalist Viv Groskop says in her new book, Own The Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking, “if you have a message you want to spread, you have to amplify your voice and get your words out there. Otherwise, one of your competitors will beat you to it. This is not the time to be quiet, keep your head down and hope that someone might hear your modest, interesting whisper.”

Whether you’re giving the speech, or writing one for a client, the first step, advises Christine Clapp, founder of 11-year-old D.C.-based firm Spoken With Authority, is to remember that “the vast, vast majority of people have been trained to write for the eye, not the ear.” Clapp, who’s trained hundreds of nervous speechwriters, including a former Florida senator, says four keys should animate every speech:

Why am I speaking to this audience? Why are you reaching out to these people, in particular? And why are they here to listen? Understanding your targeting and audience is key to making a presentation resonate.

Remember that it's not a podcast, memo or report. A speech should have its own style and be written for the ear. Brevity is important, as are jokes, anecdotes, asides and other pauses in the presentation that keep people interested and keep energy up.

What is this speech adding to the occasion? How does it address a conference theme or relate to other speakers’ thoughts? Make sure to weave your theme into your remarks; underscore the message of the overall event.

Why am I giving this speech now? what makes it especially relevant? Sometimes, you need to spell out this relevance for the audience.

A great speech starts with an outline that includes key words and phrases and data points. “Then say it out loud,” says Clapp. “You’ll get your tongue around it and after three or four times it will be a more full speech. Then transcribe it. What that does is get you an authentic outline of your voice [or your client’s] .Then clean up what you have, but keep it in your authentic voice.”

If you’re writing for someone else, “do not go that person with a finished product. Do a one-page sketch with very very broad high-level themes. Get their conceptual buy-in early.” Your iPhone is a useful tool to ask them what arguments they want to make and what stories they want to share so you’ve recorded what Clapp calls “a story database” —a wealth of anecdotes they can use in the final version.

Edit ruthlessly to rid the speech of jargon and hackneyed terms.

Make sure, whatever their message, the speaker comes across as human and relatable, Clapp advises.

“Audiences will ask ‘Do I like that person? Feeling is what makes people remember a speech and really change their mind.'”