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Speechwriting

  • Want to write a great speech?

    Red curtains and microphones waiting for a speech to be delivered

    Want to write a great speech?

    If you want to write a great speech that has a lasting impact on your audience, you’re going to need more than fancy words.

    You’ll need to:

    1.

    Use eye contact, body language, a warm tone of voice and facial expressions.

    2.

    Acknowledge and engage your audience.

    3.

    Add current research, data and even personal observations.

    4.

    Include storytelling and practise it with friends first; people love a good story.

    5.

    Create a change of pace every 10 minutes, so people don’t lose interest.

    6.

    Practise and deliver a great ‘wow’ moment.

    7.

    Start strong and finish on time.

    A speech is not an essay

    It’s not easy to write a great speech if you approach it as if you’re writing an essay.

    Your audience won’t see punctuation marks on a written page. It will be up to you to convey the commas and exclamation marks throughout your delivery. 

     As John Coleman writes ‘when delivering a speech, you are your punctuation’.

    Do your research

    In order to write a great speech, you need to understand your audience’s emotional reactions and physical capabilities. Remember, the speech is for them, not you.

     

     

    Infographic with 4 facts that matter if you want to write a great speech

    What we can learn from the greatest speeches

    One of the greatest speeches ever written was delivered by Winston Churchill in 1940. It was so powerful it changed hearts and minds.

    When Churchill took over 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.

    In London, a pro-appeasement faction within the British cabinet was arguing 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.

    Winston Churchill (1940)

    Sir Winston Churchill on how to write a great speech

    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. We know now that this saved Western civilisation.

    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.

    When you write a speech, you’re applying a distinct discipline that requires a particular suite of talents and experience.

    Speechwriting requires a different set of skills than those you’d use to write office communications content.

    A great 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.

    For those special events, such as a retirement dinner or annual general meeting, truly memorable words can make a big difference.

    Principles of speechwriting

    Let’s look in detail at how to write a great speech.

    Big bang theory

    It’s been said that you have only one opportunity to make a first impression.

    That means only one chance to pique the interest of your audience, and it’s 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 one of Barack Obama’s most famous speeches. He used potent imagery to describe the marches from Selma to Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King Jr, in support of voting rights for all African Americans.

    Barack Obama standing with his arms crossed in front of US flag

    The Americans who crossed this bridge, they were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, countless daily indignities – but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before.

    Barack Obama (2015)

    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.

    Overused phrases and clichéd expressions will consign your words to mediocrity.

    Stay on message when you write a speech

    Try to confine your speech to a single major theme.

    Subsidiary themes may be woven into the text, but only if they support and illustrate the primary story you’re trying to tell.

    A scattershot approach to writing a speech will make the end product superficial and that, in turn, will make your words eminently forgettable.

    Pass the tissues

    When you write a speech, conclude with a tug at the heart strings.

    It could be an uplifting invocation of your company’s founding principles.

    Or perhaps a heartfelt appeal on behalf of your favourite charity.

    Woman crying holding tissues up to her nose – how to write a great speech

    Perhaps a further display of your authenticity, where you let down your guard a little and share something personal.

    However you end your speech, remember that ending on an emotive note will make your words resonate with the audience long after your speech is over.

    Technique is everything

    The speechwriter has many rhetorical devices that, when used in the right place and at the right time, make words powerful and memorable.

    Use the acronym TARMAC to remember the list below

    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).

    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 ‘Rime of the ancient mariner’ – ‘for the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky.’

    Rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds (or the same sound) in two or more words.

    This is most often in the final syllables of lines in poems and songs.

    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’.

    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.’

    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.’

    Simile is comparing two things that use the preposition ‘like’ or ‘as’ to highlight their similarities.

    An example 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.’

    Two useful tools

    To measure the number of words you speak in a minute or 10, check the Words to Minutes calculator.

    If you’re after an accurate webpage word count, see the Web Page Word Counter.

    Watch Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

    Motivation Ark (2020). Steve Jobs, One of the greatest speeches ever.

    Remember this:

    When you write a speech it’s more art than science, and it’s an art that requires a particular suite of expertise and experience.

    If you want to write a great speech, take the time to read and watch well-known speeches and analyse those elements that made them unforgettable.

    To read more about writing a speech,  you can go to this page on the Textshop website.

    Also see our blog post on How to make your writing more powerful.

    You can organise a chat with our resident speechwriter by pressing the button below.

    You might also enjoy

  • How to make your writing more powerful

    Superman opening his cape to show how to make your writing more powerful.

    How to make your writing more powerful

    By Sharon Lapkin

    Weak words and phrases decrease the authority of your writing and drive your readers away. 

    But you can make your writing more powerful by following a few simple tips.

    There are three main types of words and phrases that can damage your writing. 

    They are filler words, redundant words and adverbs ending in ‘ly’.

    We’ll look at all three below.

    What are filler words in writing?

    Filler words are words that add no value.

    They’re words you need to eradicate from your writing before your readers give up on you.

    Do you receive emails that commence with ‘I just wanted to write …’?

    When you use just in a sentence, you undermine your credibility and minimise your authority.

    This is because just is an apology word.

    ‘I’m just checking in,’ and ‘I just called …’ and I’ll just let him know.’

    Now look at how much stronger your writing could be without it.

    I’m checking in, I called and I’ll let him know.

    More wavering weasel words

    Other meaningless words are so and such.

    ‘It’s so healthy and such a great healthy snack.’

    Remove them and you have a strong sentence that communicates authority.

    ‘It’s healthy and a great snack.’

    Very and really also dilute and weaken your writing.

    They’re timid words that reduce the strength of sentences.

    ‘The book was really good’ – or the stronger version: ‘The book was good.’

    Really, very and quite are sometimes called intensifiers, but they weaken writing rather than enhance it.

    Jars of pencils and an eraser on a notepad demonstrating the importance of making your writing more powerful.

    Mark Twain disliked the word very, and offered the following advice:

    “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write very;

    your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

    Instead of think, feel and believe, use research to make your writing more powerful

    A writer doesn’t  need to tell their readers what they think, feel or believe about the topics they’re writing on. 

    Using these words makes it appear writers are trying too hard to impress their readers.

    For example – I believe content marketing is the most successful marketing strategy at the moment.

    A better version – According to a HubSpot survey, almost 80% of companies have a content marketing strategy. 

    Using proven examples, statistics and research makes writing stronger.

    To win readers’ trust and to build credibility always use research to support the ideas you’re writing about.

    Instead of ‘I think the federal budget will show a huge deficit,’ insert authority into your writing.

    ‘Economist Ken Henry said the federal budget will show a big deficit.’

    Jerry Weissman, in the Harvard Business Review, demonstrates some clever ways to Replace meaningless words with meaningful ones.

    Teal-coloured fabric strip divider.

    Keep your focus sharp by eliminating redundant words

    Redundancy is when two or more words are used together that mean the same thing.

    Using redundant words is a sure way to weaken your writing.

    For example: Let’s briefly summarise the story.

    Did you pick the redundant word?

    ‘Let’s summarise the story’ avoids repetition, and makes your writing more powerful.

    Examples of redundant words

    end result

    close proximity

    circle around

    difficult dilemma

    complete circle

    very unique

    new beginning

    free gift

    absolutely certain

    final outcome

    first began

    A result occurs at the end, so ‘end’ is unnecessary. 

    ‘Proximity’ is already close to something.

    Circle and around mean the same thing.

    Dilemma means ‘difficult’ so ‘a dilemma’ works fine.

    A circle is always complete.

    ‘Unique’ is an absolute’ so it can’t be modified by ‘very’.

    A beginning is always ‘new’.

    If it’s not free, then it’s not a gift.

    ‘Absolutely’ doesn’t add anything to certainty.

    An outcome should be final.

    If you begin it, then it’s the first time.

    Drawing of woman standing with sign that reads 'Why use two words when one will do?' How to make your writing more powerful.

    What's a redundant sentence?

    It should be easier now to identify words or phrases that say the same thing twice.

    For example – ‘Many homeless men, who had nowhere to live, were at the soup kitchen.’

    But don’t fall into the trap of repeating a concept or idea expressed in one sentence in another sentence.

    Powerful writing is concise in both words and ideas.

    The following two sentences say the same thing using different words.

    The survey was composed of questions with multiple-choice options.

    Survey recipients selected one of a series of answer options.

    If a single sentence lacks essential detail go back and insert more information, rather than adding a second sentence that duplicates part of the first sentence.

    The survey recipients selected one of the multiple-choice options.

    Powerful writing is learned through reading the work of strong writers and practising it yourself.

    In his book, The Elements of Style, Cornell University English Professor William Strunk Jr. wrote:

    “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

    A good writer, he added, should “make every word tell”.

    Teal-coloured fabric strip divider.

    Avoid adverbs ending in 'ly'

    Author Stephen King said “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the hilltops.”

    Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. 

    Often adverbs end in ‘ly’.

    For example – happily, thoughtfully, slowly, easily and patiently are adverbs.

    These adverbs are usually formed by adding ‘ly’ to the end of an adjective.

    So, we’ve just formed adverbs from the adjectives – happy, thoughtful, slow, easy and patient.

    But technically, not all ‘ly’ words are adverbs.

    For example, in the sentence: ‘The lonely boy was sitting by himself,’ lonely is an adjective that modifies the noun ‘boy’, so it is not an adverb.

    Now that we know what an adverb ending in ‘ly’ is, let’s look at how we know these words weaken writing.

    Photograph of Ernest Hemingway sitting at a table writing while at his campsite in Kenya. How to make your writing more powerful.

    Hemingway used few adverbs

    Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway’s novels and short stories serve as a good model for business writing.

    After high school, Hemingway went on to train as a journalist and he applied those skills to his fiction writing.

     

    In research for his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal about the Classics, author Ben Blatt used statistical tools to analyse text from 1500 books.

    Blatt found that books considered ‘great’ had fewer than 50 adverbs in every 10,000 words.

    Hemingway used only 80 ‘ly’ adverbs per 10,000 words. His writing includes both short and long sentences – but they are always simple, unadorned, direct and clear.

    “A writer’s style should be direct and personal, his imagery rich and earthy, and his words simple and vigorous.”

    – Ernest Hemingway

    Abolishing adverbs from your writing is easy when you know how.

    ‘She smiled happily, for example, is redundant because a smile is an expression of happiness.

    Jane was unhappy, she said angrily.

    Removing the adverb angrily makes your writing stronger.

    Strike out other adverbs from your writing such as definitely, truly, really and extremely and see how much stronger your writing is.

    Occasionally, you’ll use an adverb in your writing that works tremendously (yes, that was an adverb).

    By all accounts keep it if it’s the perfect word.

    But remember to use adverbs wisely and review your writing to check whether they can be removed. 

    Teal-coloured fabric strip divider.

    More tips to make your writing more powerful

     You might also be interested in reading How to be a good content writer, which shows how authentic storytelling is the best way to successfully promote your goods or services.

    For more writing tips read 9 common errors every writer should know about.

    If you’d like to chat to me about writing or editing please send me an email via the button below.