Speechwriting, Writing

How to write a great speech

A partial view of a young man sitting at a desk and writing in a notepad with a pen.

The power of words to change hearts and minds is the focal theme of Darkest Hour, a film about the first weeks of Winston Churchill’s tenure as British Prime Minister.

When Churchill took the reins of power things were looking very grim for the cause of human freedom. The Germans had just triumphed over the Allies in France and the British army only barely slipped away at Dunkirk, abandoning its heavy weapons and equipment. And in London a pro-appeasement faction within the British cabinet argued for peace negotiations with Hitler.

But Churchill rejected this defeatist advice and rose to the dispatch box in the House of Commons where he gave a speech that literally changed the course of history.

We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Black and white photo of Winston Churchill in 1941.

Sir Winston Churchill (30 December 1941), Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada, e010751643 – licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

One observer described this event in his diary as: “a magnificent oration, which obviously moved the House”.

Another MP wrote that the Prime Minister’s words were “worth 1000 guns and the speeches of 1000 years”.

By the time Churchill resumed his seat, the entire landscape of British politics had shifted. The push for appeasement evaporated and the nation resolved to fight on against Nazi Germany. Western civilisation was saved.

While the challenges faced by corporate communications departments may not be so dramatic these days, the need to convey a coherent message in eloquent form remains important.

Speechwriting is a distinct discipline that requires a particular suite of talents and experience. A good speech requires a different set of skills than preparing a press release.

A quality speech should be almost poetic, imbued with a rhythmic quality that enlivens and inspires. When it’s done, the audience should be left thinking and talking about what’s been said and the way it was said. And for those special events – a product launch or an AGM address – truly memorable words can make a big difference.

Principles of speechwriting

Big bang theory

It’s been said that you have only one opportunity to make a first impression. And that means only one chance to pique the interest of your audience – at the beginning.

Start with a strong ‘hook’ because if you lose your listeners at the beginning, you’ll never get them back.

Paint with words

Use colourful, evocative language to generate powerful images that will resonate with your audience. A tremendous example of this can be found in another one of Churchill’s most famous speeches, when he used potent imagery to describe the stakes for which Britain was fighting:

If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Junk your jargon

The 1996 French film Ridicule tells a story about the court of Louis XVI at Versailles where status was dependent on a witty tongue. While a well-directed quip might elevate you in Royal favour, any resort to pun brought social death.

What’s the difference? It’s originality.

Always try to be creative in your use of language, avoiding hackneyed phrases like the plague – which itself is a prime example of a clichéd expression that will consign your words to mediocrity.

Stay on message

Always try to confine your speeches to a single major theme. Subsidiary themes may be woven into the text, but only if they support and illustrate the primary story you are trying to tell. A scattershot approach to speech-making will make the end product superficial and that, in turn, will make your words eminently forgettable.

Pass the tissues

Always conclude your speech with a tug at the heart strings. Whether it’s an uplifting invocation of your company’s founding principles, or a sublime appeal on behalf of your favourite charity, ending on an emotive note will make your words resonate with the audience long after your speech is over.

Techniques

Following are just a few – among many – of the speechwriter’s rhetorical devices that, when used in the right place and at the right time, will make your words shine.

The following list has been arranged as the mnemonic acronym ‘TARMACS’ to assist with memorisation.

  1. Tricolon is the use of words, phrases, examples, or the beginnings or endings of phrases or sentences in threes; as in ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ (Abraham Lincoln), or ‘never in the history of human endeavour has so much been owed by so many to so few’ (Winston Churchill).
  2. Alliteration is the repeated sound of the first or second letter in a series of words, or the repetition of the same letter sounds in stressed syllables of a phrase, as in the line from Coleridge’s Ryme of the Ancient Mariner’ for the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky.’
  3. Rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds (or the same sound) in two or more words, most often in the final syllables of lines in poems and songs.
  4. Metaphor is a juxtaposition of two distinct things that asserts they are essentially the same; as in the ancient Greek saying ‘fame is but the perfume of heroic deeds’.
  5. Antithesis is the technique of contrasting two different ideas in the same sentence or two consecutive sentences; as in ‘speech is silver but silence is golden.’
  6. Chiasmus is a very effective technique where the words in one phrase or clause are reversed in the next; as in ‘just because you’re born in the slum does not mean the slum is born in you.’
  7. Simile is comparing two things that use the preposition ‘like’ or ‘as’ to highlight their similarities. An example of this is in the words of poet Robert Burns when he wrote: ‘O my Luve’s like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June.’

Remember this

Good speechwriting is more art than science, and it’s an art that requires a particular suite of expertise and experience. If you want to write great speeches, take the time to read well-known speeches and analyse those elements of writing that made them unforgettable.

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