Need to Write Your Own Speech? Use These Tips from the Pros

By Dave Zielinski

Just as actors are only as good as the quality of their scripts, speakers can only sway audiences if the words they write prove compelling and credible when spoken. The ability to write persuasively for the ear is the essence of good speechmaking. Yet given how PowerPoint’s bulleted text blurbs have
grown to dominate organizational presentations, it’s also something of a dying art.

While not every speech you write will call for soaring rhetoric or ringing phrases, its success or failure will still rest largely on the underpinnings of strong writing and editing skills. Unlike politicians, CEOs or celebrities, most presenters don’t have professional speechwriters at their beck and call. To help you craft winning presentations, we interviewed some top speechwriters to identify what makes speech scripts memorable, and how to effectively put fingers to the keyboard.

Start from the Finish Line

Most of us have heard this time-honored advice about the beginning phases of writing a speech: Diligently research audience needs and then craft an “elevator speech” or short summary of your main message which the rest of your content can support. Yet like a teenager ignoring Mom’s advice to shut off the Xbox and return to his homework, speakers still tend to ignore those fundamentals.

Pete Weissman, who joined Toastmasters when he worked as a speechwriter in the U.S. Senate, also wrote speeches for the CEO of the Coca-Cola Company and worked in the West Wing of the White House before starting his Atlanta-based speechwriting and communications firm. Weissman says one of the best things you can do to achieve focus before starting the writing process is to pose this question: If a reporter were to write an article about my speech, what would the headline be?

“Throughout the research process you’ll gather a lot more information than you can ever use in your speech, so having that desired headline in mind will help you focus and filter information,” Weissman says.

Similarly, one of the most effective tactics to use in crafting speeches – especially those including PowerPoint slides – is to heed author Stephen Covey’s principle of “starting with the end in mind,” believes Jim Endicott, head of coaching firm Distinction Communication in Newberg, Oregon.

To that end, Endicott has his clients create the last slide in their PowerPoint decks first, asking them to use three key points or less, and not exceed one line of text per point.

“The exercise helps create a laser focus on what you want the audience to think or believe differently at the end of your speech,” Endicott says. “That concluding slide becomes the litmus test for how you measure the rest of your content, ensuring everything in the body of your speech drives toward those concluding points.”

Nick Morgan, president of the speech coaching firm Public Words and author of the book Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma, uses a related method. He tells his clients to begin the speechwriting process by creating a one-sentence summary of what their talk is about.

“Everything that relates to that summary goes into the speech script, and things that don’t are left out,” Morgan says. “I think one trick of great speechwriting is knowing what to leave out. That kind of focus on your key message also is a good way to save time when writing speeches.”

Create Audience-Centric Messages

Weissman says addressing an audience’s pain points – issues that may be keeping them up at night – early in a speech is the best way to corral their attention.

“If you want to hold an audience’s attention, you either must be wildly entertaining, like someone juggling flaming sticks, or be absolutely essential,” Weissman says. “The way to make yourself essential is to address the biggest problem or need of the people sitting in the room, and to mention you’re going to do so at the beginning of your speech.”

For example, if you’re speaking to prospective homebuyers struggling to find mortgages, you might include this early on: “In my experience, I’ve learned a few ways to overcome challenges in the credit market, and that’s what I’ll share with you today.”

Morgan also says the old expression, “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em,” doesn’t hold up well with today’s impatient or skeptical audiences. The saying emerged from World War II and was a good model for briefing soldiers required to stand at attention and listen, but it lacks a key element, he says.

“It should also tell them why you are about to say what you’re going to say,” Morgan says. In other words, audiences want to know why your content is important to them before they will invest time listening to you.

Tricks of the Trade

The pros concur on one of the biggest challenges in speechwriting: Don’t put on the “critic’s hat” too early in the creative process. You’ve likely been there: You’ve finished writing your opening lines, paused to re-read them, then started feverishly editing or deleting because you were unhappy with your efforts. Twenty minutes later you’ve made little progress.

Speechwriters say it’s important to discipline yourself to write a first draft all the way through without getting too self-critical at this stage of the process. All good speechwriting, it seems, is rewriting. And until you have enough words on the screen and have let your copy “go cold” for a sufficient amount of time, you can’t effectively return to start honing, reorganizing or “wordsmithing” your content.

Toastmasters Past International President Gary Schmidt, DTM, is a believer in letting a first draft flow like an opened fire hydrant. Schmidt currently works as public affairs manager for Clackamas County, Oregon, where he writes speeches for public officials. He also is a former speechwriter for two U.S. senators from Oregon.

“If I’m writing an initial draft and think I have to edit a sentence, I just push through instead of stopping to rework it,” says Schmidt. “The key for me is to keep the keyboard moving or I’ll get stuck. Later, I’ll give a first edit to the draft, put it away for a while, then come back to it with fresh eyes and edit again.”

Given the importance of speech openers, Schmidt saves that segment of a speech for last, a practice shared by many of his peers. “I’ll typically write the body of the speech first, write the conclusion and only then come back to the opening,” he says. Having finished the rest of the speech helps him add clarity and punch to the opener.

While it can be easy to think you’re alone in struggling with a blank computer screen, creating good transitions between key points or writing a killer opening, the reality is you have plenty of company. In a recent international survey of frequent presenters conducted by Distinction Communication, speakers were asked, “What do you find to be the most challenging part of creating and delivering a presentation?” The top response was “putting together a good message so my presentation flows and connects well.”

The pros aren’t immune from these same struggles. The difference is they’ve learned to discipline themselves to work through the worry or temporary lack of creative inspiration. “Once I hit upon the big idea or big metaphor for a speech, the rest of the script or message starts to click,” says Weissman. “But it often can feel like I’m wandering around in the dark until I come across that big theme.”

Professional speechwriters also are constantly in research mode, their antennae up for interesting quotes, facts or studies that might be a good fit for a speech, whether it be next week or an unknown event down the road. “I always have a quote file going,” says Schmidt. “I keep an electronic file where I add ideas as soon as they occur to me. I keep clips, links to websites and other information that might be of use in speeches.”

Weissman also has an ongoing idea file and recently began experimenting with EverNote (, an online tool that enables you to “clip” news articles, Web pages, photos, research studies and the like. Everything captured is automatically indexed and made searchable.

“It’s very helpful to ‘virtually’ store all of the interesting bits and pieces you regularly come across,” Weissman says.

Writing for the Ear Versus the Eye

What separates speechwriting from other types of writing is a need to write convincingly for the ear versus the eye. Writing for a listening audience rather than a reading one demands a different approach, requiring that you work harder to create visual images and craft phrases or stories that stand out in the minds of listeners. Writing for the ear often means using shorter sentences, contractions and simpler language, professional speechwriters say. In short, it means being more conversational in your writing style.

“Writing for the ear requires continually honing your sentences, looking to create parallel construction, artful repetition and other techniques that can elevate language so your words become stronger when spoken,” Weissman says.

Schmidt says writing well for the ear takes practice, but studying some of the great speakers – and better yet, acquiring copies of their scripts – can help speed your learning curve. “Toastmasters groups are great for emphasizing that audiences aren’t reading your speech, they are hearing
you speak it,” Schmidt says. “The choice of language, and how you organize content, is different because the ear has to understand it immediately. An audience doesn’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Hey, could you go back and say that again? I didn’t quite understand it.’”

In writing for others as well as himself, Schmidt has learned the importance of writing the way you speak. “The worst sin in speechwriting is not using the kinds of words or phrases you might use in everyday conversations,” he says. “I can think of some presidential speeches that were beautifully written and read, but in the end you were left thinking, ‘That really didn’t sound like him; that’s not the way he speaks.’ That lack of authenticity can diminish your authority as a communicator.”

Developing Messages for PowerPoint

It’s also important to develop content in a way that is “audience-centric instead of speaker-centric,” Endicott says. “The number one thing audiences wonder is, ‘Will this presentation be relevant to my life and the issues that cause me sleepless nights?’ Too often, sales presentations in particular become a 45-minute solution in search of a problem to solve, rather than addressing a prospect’s key problems or needs up front.”

If you’re using PowerPoint or other design software, the first clue as to whether you’ve put your audience first is your presentation’s title slide. Endicott says a bad title slide might read like this example: “Productivity and Efficiency Tools for Your Assembly Line.” A better version would read: “Helping You Drive Higher Productivity & Efficiency from Your Assembly Line.”

Bad visuals can destroy good speaking skills, Endicott says, and less is always more when it comes to using text on PowerPoint slides. Consider applying the seven-second rule to your visual content.

“Never put more on a slide than you can visually process in seven to eight seconds,” Endicott says. “This will cause you to constantly distill down messages to the very essence of what you want to say.”

Other experts stress that PowerPoint should be used as a prompt and not a teleprompter. “Too often the audience is forced to play a horrified game of PowerPoint bingo, wondering if the speaker is going to say every single word on every slide,” Morgan says. “That makes them wonder, ‘If they are going to read every word, I can probably read them faster, so why is the presenter even here?’”

Speakers should strive to include more compelling visuals on slides – thought-provoking photos or well-designed graphics – and rely more heavily on speaker’s notes the audience can’t see to provide spoken context and connective tissue between slides, Morgan says.

“Imagine what a movie or a TV show would be like if they simultaneously ran the script down the side of the screen – ‘here’s an explosion’ – like you often see with all of the speech text included on PowerPoint slides,” Morgan says. “It would destroy your enjoyment level. So why would you do that in a speech?”

Endicott says most plane crashes happen on takeoff or landing, and the same holds true for speeches – particularly the landings. “Most presentations today end simply because the speaker runs out of slides, not because they’ve taken time to craft a well-conceived, well-articulated closing,” he says.

Speechwriting is often the most overlooked and undervalued part of the speechmaking process. But if you get that important first step right, you’ll be amazed at how often the rest of your speaking experience falls into place.

Reprinted from The Toastmaster magazine

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