Audiences are moved by the power of human communication. That means great use of voice, diction, breathing and body language.
It’s also true, however, that great speeches start on the page. All the rhetorical skill in the world cannot make a badly written speech soar – at best, it can only make a pedestrian speech not feel like a drag! And we all want to achieve more than that.
Most prominent speakers have speechwriters to one extent or another, and the relationship between speaker and writer is often very personal: Barack Obama called his speechwriter, Jon Favreau, his “mind-reader”. The truth is that the intimacy is necessary, because the best speeches will sound like the natural words of the speaker.
That means that the other 90% of us must write our own presentations. The good news is, we have an advantage; we can speak in our own voice. This is really powerful, and – beyond any Speechwriting 101 course you might take – remember the rule of thumb, “Write like yourself.” Audiences respond to authenticity.
Within that all-important context, there are four principles of good speechwriting that you should bear in mind when putting pen to paper.
1. Structure. This is the big one. Your speech needs to have a very clear structure if you are to capture and hold your audience’s attention. A strong beginning and end, plus a series of signposts in the middle, will help locate your argument at every point in the presentation. Your audience needs to keep up with you – and a solid structure is how you’ll manage that.
2. Tone. Now you know how to ensure your audience can follow your argument, you need to get tone right if you are to win them over. More formal or less formal, humorous or sober, entertaining or informative: ask yourself who your audience is, and then write for them specifically. This will help “break the ice” and meet your audience on their ground.
3. Simplicity. It can be tempting to make your speech a bit too clever. The truth, though, is that the best speeches are often the most simple: a clear argument made in a plain way, with a few killer facts to seal the deal. Most importantly, simplicity means your speech will be memorable. This is key: the more straightforward your speech, the more easily your audience will remember what you said – long after you leave the Zoom room.
4. Storytelling. This last principle might be the most powerful. Humans are storytelling animals, and we respond powerfully to narratives of any kind. Including a story in your speech will go a long way to engaging your audience with an argument. In fact, telling a story offers a structure, a tone, and a technique for simplifying your message all at the same time. Great speeches are very often also good stories.
These four principles of good speechwriting should get you to a written text that can then be the basis for a great performance. The written text should never be the priority, of course –instead, it’s preparation for the most important moment, when you open your mouth.