Chances are you’ll be asked to deliver a speech at some point in your career. Or perhaps public speaking is something you do regularly, but you’d like to take your speechwriting up a notch.
Regardless, being able to write a great speech — one that connects with the audience, conveys what you’re trying to get across, and delivers on the objectives of the event or meeting — is a great tool to have in your professional arsenal.
There’s plenty of advice on the nuts-and-bolts of delivering a speech. We explore some of the best in the accompanying story “7 tips for delivering a speech that connects.” But what about the content of your speech? Whether you craft your own message or work with a behind-the-scenes speechwriter, here are seven tips to create a speech that succeeds.
- Start with the objectives. What are you trying to achieve with this speech? If you can’t answer that question, maybe this isn’t the right opportunity for you or perhaps someone else on your team is better suited. Sometimes you are, in fact, the best fit (a quarterly meeting for your department, a shareholder event, a public announcement for an initiative you spearheaded), but you might be unsure what to write. Think about the two or three most important things you want listeners to walk away knowing, as well as which topics might derail your core message. You’ll also want to check with the organizers and research the purpose of the event or meeting, so you can align with their objectives and understand the parameters of the invitation.
- Know your audience. Do your homework so you have a clear picture of who will be listening. The audience may include not just those attending in person, but also those listening or viewing remotely. There may be a broader public audience to consider, as well, if your speech will be captured by the news media, offered as a recorded webinar or shared on social media. Gain insights into the anticipated audience from the organizers, and review speeches from previous events geared to this audience. Even the best-written speech can tank if it’s not mindful of the listeners. And remember: Any speech can become public if someone records it on their cellphone and shares it. If you’re not certain about the reach, be mindful of sharing internal information or unpopular opinions that may damage the brand of your company, nonprofit or industry association.
- Make it personal and relatable. You were asked to speak for a reason. What is it about you — your contributions to the issue, your lived experience, your knowledge — and your company or organization that makes you uniquely suited to deliver this speech? If you feel comfortable sharing a personal or professional anecdote, and it is appropriate to the event and objectives, weave that into your narrative. Do you have access to research, stories, data or insights that can increase your listeners’ understanding or help them see a challenge or issue in a new light? Sharing those can help you connect. While your speech should not be all about you, or even mostly about you (unless you’ve been asked to talk exclusively about your personal story), judiciously peppering in short personal details can elevate even a simple committee meeting, product launch or municipal presentation.
- Mind the story structure. Every speech is, at its essence, an opportunity for storytelling. It should have a clear, effective story structure. Even a short five-minute speech should have a beginning, a middle and a clearly defined ending. You’ll want to start strong, perhaps with an interesting and relatable observation, quick story or relevant stat. Your opening should also give a nod to what you plan to relay through the rest of the speech — laying out the big picture and briefly foreshadowing what’s to come. But don’t feel compelled to cram all the good stuff into the first minute or two. Lay out verbal “bread crumbs” that lead the listeners logically through the story and capture their attention so they want to stay engaged. And your ending should tie things up with a nice bow. Maybe you relay a call to action (don’t forget to vote next week, stop by our new location, let’s work together to tackle this issue). Maybe you hammer home one of the key points made earlier. Maybe you leave the audience with a question or recommendation to consider further. Whatever you do, make sure your ending actually feels like an ending. We’ve all sat through speeches that just sort of stop abruptly, with no clear thought to story arc.
- Language matters. What you say in your speech — the point you’re working to get across — is critical. Just as important is how you say it. Use active sentences, rather than passive ones. (“Our team hit its goals” lands better than “The goals were hit by our team.”) Strong, colorful, descriptive language pulls listeners in. While you don’t want to sound like a Marvel movie — “Bam!” “Kapow!” “Whoosh!” — you also don’t want to be the verbal equivalent of beige paint. Let your nouns and verbs do much of the heavy lifting, rather than relying on an endless flurry of adjectives and adverbs. (Think “Darkness blanketed the arena” vs. “A very dark night came over the arena.”) Force your sentence structure to move listeners along. Plodding, meandering writing saps an audience’s attention. And complicated sentences with too many twists, turns and parenthetical phrases can be tough to follow even for a reader, much less a listener. Plenty of heavy sentences can be saved simply by breaking them into two shorter, punchier ones.
- Polish, polish, polish. A first draft is simply that — your opening attempt. Try not to agonize too much over it; just get your thoughts down without derailing yourself or cycling into a blank-screen panic. Then the real work begins: Reshape, rethink, reposition. Take a critical eye to the overall structure, as well as the line-by-line writing. When developing a great speech, you’ll likely need at least two rounds of rewriting and editing to make it sing.
- How does it sound? To your ear, that is. To the ears of a trusted adviser or two or a writer friend? Speeches are meant to be heard, obviously, but too many people spend too little time reading and practicing them out loud. A sentence that hits on the page may fall flat in a speech. A section that seemed clear when you were editing it might make your listeners scratch their heads in confusion. You’ll never know unless you’ve spoken the speech multiple times before you hit the stage. Even the most experienced public speakers and high-profile executives — perhaps even especially them — practice again and again.
And now, you nail it!
Writing a great speech doesn’t have to create anguish. By virtue of your position, your experience or your personality — or all three — you’ve been asked to deliver an address. Employing these seven tactics will help you write a speech that people remember.