The public speaking workshop part 3: How to write a whip-smart speech - 35 Thousand

The public speaking workshop part 3: How to write a whip-smart speech

Posted by Susannah Taylor on

In the third part of our public speaking workshop (Part 1 was ‘Getting your mindset right‘ and Part 2 was Pro Tips for Knockout Speech) we’ve asked the experts for all of the tips, tricks and teachings you need for a writing a speech or presentation.

You’re due to give a speech, whether at a wedding, work meeting or Zoom conference, and as if your pre-public speaking nerves weren’t enough you’re sat in front of a blank doc with writer’s block. Sound familiar?

It may be reassuring to know that the world’s most articulate wordsmiths can struggle with this exact same keyboard paralysis when it comes to putting a speech down on paper. Speaking aloud has a different rhythm to reading words on a page and it can be all too easy to lose your audience by way of meandering anecdotes, knotty language or complicated graphs and tables that distract from the point that you’re trying to put across (making no mention of recent PowerPoint fails at UK government press briefings).

Delivering an Obama (or Kamala) level speech may indeed be an art and there’s a reason why public speakers often hire a crack team of speechwriters to spin their initial ideas and concepts into public speaking gold. Luckily you don’t need to enlist a scribe to craft a speech that’s memorable for all of the right reasons – learn the surprisingly simple speech writing secrets of those in the know and you’ll have your audience eating out of the palm of your hand. Or at the very least, listening, which really isn’t something to be taken for granted according to the experts.

Knowledge is power

Phil Waknell, co-founder of communication and presentation agency Ideas On Stage, suggests getting out of your own head as the starting point for writing a speech:

“Tailor your speech to your audience: it’s theirs, not yours. Speak to them specifically and personally, using relevant examples and stories where possible.

“If you make it clear that this isn’t the same speech you would give – or have given many times – to other audiences, they will listen more attentively and appreciate the effort that you’ve made to adapt to them.”

In essence, everyone likes to feel special, even in a virtual room of avatars. Understanding your audience, where they’re coming from and what makes them tick will play to your advantage before you’ve even begun typing.

What’s the story?

This may seem like an extremely basic starting point, but establishing the story that you’re trying to tell (or sell) from the outset is key to the eventual success of a speech. Phil explains why consistent, engaging narratives are so important:

“People forget facts and general statements, but our minds light up when we hear real, concrete stories, meaning that we listen intently and remember so much more of the detail in the stories, and therefore the speech.”

We’re not suggesting that you go in with a ‘book at bedtime’ approach, but painting a vivid picture to illustrate your point will capture your audience’s attention and imagination while improving their retention of your speech in the long term. Phil advises focusing on the “emotional journey” of a speech rather than reeling off information or stringing together logical arguments. While the latter approach works well for a written essay, even the most formal of speeches needs to centre on emotional and attention-grabbing ‘hooks. That said, ensure that your register is appropriate for the occasion…

Set the tone

Before you fall into TED Talk induced overwhelm, retired paediatrician, university lecturer and now wildlife photographer Dr Mark Hunter underlines that there are fewer ‘types’ of speech than you might imagine:

“There are three main goals when giving a speech – to entertain, to teach/inform or to persuade. There’s limited crossover between these types and even ceremonial speeches adhere to this categorisation, for example the aim of a wedding speech is to entertain while a eulogy is an education about the life of the deceased.”

With this in mind, Mark emphasises that it’s vital to establish why you’re making a speech and briefly explain your credentials for doing so to the audience too:

“Introduce yourself (it’s rude not to), explain where you’re taking the audience and justify your talk before delivering the main substance. Then end with a summary, conclusion or punchline that’ll resonate long after you’ve left the stage or pressed ‘Leave Meeting’.”

As for that punchline, Mark has a pointer on comedy:

“Tread carefully when it comes to humour. If you’re going there, make sure that any jokes are genuinely funny (road test them on a close, captive audience beforehand) and that you know your audience well. Don’t let humour distract from a serious talk.”

That’s not to say that a phenomenal finale is off the cards…

‘Sandwich’ your speech

Creating a striking entrance and exit is the distinguishing feature of a rousing speech. Just as an audience’s attention is held rapt by a suspenseful, intriguing or heartfelt story, so a powerful catchphrase or statement will live on in your audience’s memory. Malala Yousafzai’s 2013 address to the UN highlighting every child’s right to education is one such compelling close (“one child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world”) while Greta Thunberg’s searing opener at the 2019 UN Climate Change Summit (“this is all wrong; I shouldn’t be up here”) had the world and its leaders hanging onto her every word from the off.

Phil affirms that how you bookend your speech makes all the difference between an attentive audience and an AWOL one:

“Aim to provoke an emotional reaction within the first 30 seconds. Grab their attention and make the audience realise that they will actively enjoy your speech as well as gain or learn something from it. Make them smile, make them laugh (if that’s appropriate), make them raise their eyebrows – just don’t make them bored.”

Go analogue

From there, Phil advocates taking a step back from Microsoft Office:

“When you’re writing a speech, don’t just reel it off verbatim in Word or PowerPoint. Begin with sticky notes or notecards and write down one salient idea per card. Assemble your ideas into a storyline that will reset the audience’s attention every few minutes.”

Mark adds that the average audience’s attention span peaks at between 15-20 minutes, so don’t try to stuff in too much – stick to three main points, max. He advises keeping props minimal (if you’re using them) and if you’re presenting slides opt for clear fonts written large and in monochrome, ideally with headings that ‘fly’ in to prevent your audience from reading ahead. Mark also urges you to construct your speech in a way that will work if tech or add-ons fail you. You don’t want to be held hostage by dodgy wifi.

Finally, if you’re still up a speech-writing creek without a paddle, heed the ultimate public speaking wisdom of former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt:

“Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”

If you like this article then you will LOVE the rest of our Personal Growth section where you can find articles on everything from ‘How to Feng Shui your Office’ to ‘How to keep relationships intact despite differing political views.’

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