Effective speechwriting is difficult to master. You overturn the box and pick through the polystyrene, only to find there’s no instruction manual. In mid-2011, I was asked to write speeches while working for the Opposition Leader of New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state. Armed with nothing but a background in print journalism, I was forced to teach myself.
Assignments soon torpedoed onto my desk from all directions. They included parliamentary speeches to be delivered by the Opposition Leader with one hour’s notice, detailed policy presentations to groups such as NSW Business Chamber, the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the Transport and Tourism Forum, and polite scripted remarks on everything from Ramadan to Chinese New Year.
Responding to this flurry of demands was not easy (though Google helped me through many close scrapes). After four years of satisfying successes tinged with some hard lessons, here are my tips for writing effective speeches.
Have a clear purpose
Is the main purpose of your speech to ‘break news’ – to reveal new information or deliver an announcement? Is it intended to ‘close the sale’ – to promote a product or convince the audience of the merits of a particular argument? Or is it simply a general discussion that is designed to educate? The best speeches will leave their audience with a lasting takeaway and it’s important to define this from the outset of the writing process. Sketching out a few paragraphs that elaborate your central message before writing anything else is a good way to keep on track. These sentences will likely become a key passage or a recurring theme of the speech itself.
Map out the structure
A speech should have an identifiable structure and flow, with logical sequencing of ideas. There is nothing worse for an audience than a rambling speaker who has no idea where they’re headed. To put this structure in place, one of your first tasks in the drafting stage should be to map out what sections the speech will contain. Content can then be quickly slotted under each section heading, and the speech built outwards from the initial outline.
Create ebbs and flows
A good speech doesn’t plod along at one pace but employs creative linguistic devices to capture the audience’s attention and keep them hooked. Repetitive motifs are a way to reinforce ideas and build momentum. Famous examples include Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech where the evocative central refrain is a big part of what makes it so stirring. Or, take Paul Keating’s sombre admission to indigenous Australians in his 1992 Redfern speech that “We brought the diseases … we committed the murders … we took the children from their mothers”. Other techniques to spice up the flow of a speech include posing rhetorical questions, mixing and matching different sentence lengths, and punctuating long, dry, factual passages with shorter ones containing synopsis and argument.
Use an authentic voice
A speech should be written in the ‘voice’ of the person delivering it – and any use of humour or other flourishes should be consistent. This is not always easy to achieve, but the best speechwriters have an ability to intuitively channel another person’s identity, while sublimating their own. At the same time, voice is not a static concept and speechwriters should not be afraid to nudge their speaker to aim for a loftier plane. Kevin Rudd’s ‘Apology to the Stolen Generation’ speech in 2008 is a good example of a leader reaching for a more profound, but still authentic, level of language to match the significance of an occasion.
Ensure it connects
A self-deprecating joke or anecdote at the top of a speech can work wonders to build rapport with an audience, while a biographical section can compellingly connect a speaker’s personal values to the overall message. Another way to make content relatable is to offer colourful human examples. Facts and figures on their own can be monotonous. What really makes a speech engaging is explaining how it affects real people.
Be accurate (and honest)
Writing speeches for senior leaders in business and government requires 100 per cent accuracy. A single careless mistake can become ‘the story’ and derail an otherwise excellent effort. To avoid this fate, speeches should be scrupulously fact-checked. Similar rigour must be paid to avoid any hint of plagiarism (intentional or otherwise) and to ensure sources are fairly attributed.
Use memorable lines
JFK famously declared: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. Ted Kennedy promised “the dream shall never die” while Hillary Clinton invoked the “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling. Iconic lines that distil the essence of a speech can ensure a message reverberates through the ages (or, at the very least, makes it onto the 6 pm TV news).
Allow rehearsal time
Even a brilliantly written speech can bellyflop on delivery if the speech maker is not intimately familiar with the content. Ideally, they will receive the draft at least a couple of days in advance so they can make edits, feel comfortable with the language and have time to practise out loud.
Keep it short
In my experience, 25 minutes of listening to even the most mellifluous speaker is the upper limit that a human ear can bear. Cut it down, and a grateful audience will thank you.
Alan Mascarenhas is a lead writer and editor at Editor Group. He has worked as a speechwriter to NSW Labor leaders Luke Foley and John Robertson and as a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and Newsweek. Contact him here.