The Art of Speech Writing – Do You Want Good or Outstanding?

Category: Copywriting

April 10, 2024

There are two primary components of a speech: content and delivery. This article focuses primarily on speech content. A subsequent article will discuss the necessary components of phenomenal delivery. 

Do you remember the worst, most painful speech you ever heard?  You can select your own or someone else’s.  What went wrong?

I remember one painfully.  The speaker was flown in from New England as an expert in philanthropy and was paid a few thousand dollars to be the keynote speaker at a conference.  Her speech was barely fifteen to twenty minutes and was more like an introduction to who she was, who she married, what she liked to do, and thank you for having me.  No meat, message, or sentence evoked thought, insight, or emotion.  It was awful.  Everyone was shocked, but I don’t recall anyone complaining.  The audience was gracious.

The silver lining was that it communicated the importance of preparing, focusing on your message, what your audience wants to hear or understand, and creating a compelling message.  

It also resonated with me to be careful when selecting a speaker for your event.  No matter what instructions you may give to a speaker, a person’s contributions to a discipline do not always translate to a memorable speech, a memorable speaker, or an event with favorable recollections.

Creating content for a speech is not a difficult task.  Always start with an outline.

Nine components vital for a good speech:

  • A beginning, middle, and end, all well-organized
  • A clear purpose
  • A focus on the audience’s interests and expectations
  • Content that does not talk beneath or above the audience’s level of understanding
  • Engaging, interesting, and relevant content
  • Ample use of examples and stories people will tell others
  • Visuals to reinforce the message and persuade
  • Staying on the topic and adding related, appropriate humor
  • A pertinent call to action and summary of key points

These nine components done well will leave the audience satisfied and acknowledging that the speech was a good one.  

Here’s a thought: is a good speech all you aspire to?  If you’re preparing to deliver a speech, why not aim for something outstanding?  Why not step out of your comfort zone and strive to leave an enduring, positive impression on your audience?

“There are always three speeches for every one you actually gave.  The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”

Dale Carnegie

What more do you need to notch up your speech to a truly great one?

Let’s look at the necessary ingredients to elevate a speech to the next level—the level called outstanding, the level that might generate a standing ovation. Not only does the speech need the nine points listed above, but it also needs the following eight enhancements.  

Personalization

Sharing personal stories, vulnerabilities, and attitudes creates a robust and relatable element to the speech.   It creates a bond with the audience and can be moving, inspiring, eye-opening, or educational.  If done well, it will develop solid memories for the audience, memories of points you wanted to communicate.  It will also hold the audience’s attention, paramount to an outstanding speech.

I spoke with a friend recently who is a private investigator.  I called him because I needed information on authenticating handwriting on an exam I was grading.  Initially, he didn’t have anyone to recommend.  Then he said, “Wait a minute.  I remember a speech someone gave in Vegas about ten years ago. It was a phenomenal speech.  The stories were terrific.  Now, what was her name? Hold on a minute.  I may be able to locate it.”   

Presto!  He found her, and I was able to contact her!  

He loved the stories this speaker told so much that he kept her contact information.  Her speech created favorable, lasting, and useful memories. What a far cry from the philanthropist’s speech I mentioned at the open!

Reading the Room

In writing an outstanding speech, the speaker anticipates and answers the audience’s unspoken questions, challenges their thinking, and plans to leave them with specific takeaways. At least, that is the plan, but what else might happen?

When a speaker can read the room, they can pick up on nuances and adjust the tone, pace, and content of the speech accordingly.   In other words, despite a speaker’s extensive preparation, the audience itself may move a speaker in a different direction.  This dynamic approach to public speaking can be a learned skill that is easiest to acquire when you no longer have strong anxieties about public speaking.  Knowing the pulse of the audience and adapting goes a long way toward success.

A great example is Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech.  Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, King’s advisor, did not like the dream concept for the speech.  He called it “hackneyed and trite.”  Walker crafted a speech entitled “Normalcy Never Again,” which King was prepared to deliver. 

But as King spoke, a gospel singer named Mahalia Jackson called out from the audience, saying ‘Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!”  Instead of ignoring her, King did just that and delivered a masterful speech of profound words that still resonate with Americans today.  

A speech can become outstanding when the speaker is watchful and attentively engaged. Together, the audience and the speaker can create unexpected magic, including unity, understanding, wisdom, and profound moments.

Use of Words

Words are fascinating in many ways, and word selection matters. We might compromise our word selection when we rush to write a speech. 

“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”  

Mark Twain

For example, although considered synonymous, different words can elicit different perceptions.   Frugal may be viewed as a positive trait, but cheap would not likely be considered so, despite these words being synonyms.  Calling a competitor arrogant would give a different impression than being called confident.   An employee would react differently if a supervisor called her stubborn instead of persistent.  Saying the gentleman walked onto the stage gives a different impression than ‘the gentleman sauntered onto the stage.”  Interest and passion relay a different depth of emotion around a specific subject.  

Another critical issue to address is the proper use of definitions and acronyms. Speakers should clearly define terms that might be unfamiliar or subject to different interpretations, particularly when addressing audiences mixed with professionals and laypeople. When employing acronyms, it’s vital to explain their meanings explicitly. The objective is to prevent the audience from feeling confused and asking their neighbors, “What does that mean?”

It is easy for any speaker to make mistakes with words or to use a less descriptive word when the more expansive word would have revealed more to the listener.  An outstanding speech typically does not contain this type of mistake.  

Words chosen with care will help create the impact desired and the knowledge the speaker wants to relay.

Use of Literary Devices

There are so many such devices that it is impossible to list them here.  

One example is the anaphora, one of my absolute favorites. Anaphora is a subset of literary devices related to repetition. Here, Martin Luther King can be cited again. He used an anaphora when repeating four times in his speech, “I have a dream…” 

Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and John F. Kennedy knew the power of anaphora.  Anaphoras can inspire, uplift, emphasize, persuade, unite, create tension, expand emotion, generate sorrow and mourning, or exaltation and reverence. 

But repetition comes in many other forms. For instance, repetition is frequently rhetorical and sometimes takes the form of a question directly to the audience. It helps the audience focus on the presentation, provides rhythm and cadence, and often emphasizes and elicits a reaction. 

Repetition can be used effectively without repeating the words. Teachers are great at this. If a speech needs to educate, it is wise to repeat the concept differently, perhaps using an analogy or metaphor. 

Imagine your audience includes folks who prefer Common Core math and some who prefer the traditional approach. An outstanding speaker will ensure both groups of learners have received what they need to grasp the concept and message.

Other devices, such as hyperbole, alliteration, epistrophe, antithesis, and anadiplosis, are helpful in their own way. I will cover each of these in short subsequent posts, so stay tuned.  By incorporating different literary devices, your speech will become more alive, more engaging, and more impactful, as will you.

Structure and Flow

In our nine features of a good speech, we noted that an outline is necessary and contains a beginning, middle, and end. An outstanding speech takes this basic structure and designs a flow, building an exciting momentum to enhance the delivery of the critical points.  Anticipatory pacing, pauses, and emphasis help take the audience on a journey. 

An outstanding speech makes that journey worthwhile.   It is the difference between a kindergartener’s Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on the Ukulele and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Best Version Ever) (youtube.com).

Humor

I hesitate to include humor, as it is mentioned in the nine requirements for a good speech above, but the effects and benefits of good humor cannot be overstated.   Humor builds rapport, relaxes people, grabs attention, improves retention, communicates positivity, and often boosts the speaker’s confidence, which can improve speech delivery and much more.

Ensure you include good, relevant humor at unexpected, but not inappropriate, times.

“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.” 

Winston Churchill

Visuals

For speeches with controversial or fast-evolving topics, state-of-the-art visuals will be needed to add credibility, clarification, and citations, including graphs, charts, images, and statistics. Contrasting the current data with prior data is even more impactful.  

The more precise, accurate, and engaging this information, the more successful the speech.

Conclusion (Takeaways)

Connecting with the audience is a top goal of any speech. It is imperative for audience satisfaction and should be reinforced during the conclusion, especially if you want the speech to be outstanding.

Furthermore, an outstanding conclusion must do more than summarize key points and add a call to action. It has to engender the emotions, impact, and pulse of the speech all over again. It needs to echo the speech’s core content. 

Remind the audience of the journey you just took them.  Don’t reiterate, but recap.   In other words, make your summary concise and focused, but include the most impactful points and stories from the speech.

Tell the audience that the speech is not the beginning or the end. It is simply a status update. After leaving the venue, it is up to the audience to make the speech worthwhile.  

Perhaps they need to change a belief, adopt a new habit, participate in a cause, spread the information, and receive more education.  Perhaps they need to call your office for an appointment.   

Haunt them with this task by raising it to a high level of importance.   You can do this by asking a provocative question, creating a vision, relaying a shocking statistic, or a prognostication for the future. 

Use a memorable quote or create a powerful concluding statement encapsulating your speech’s essence.  

Thank them for attending and being a great audience, one you genuinely appreciate and hope to interact with again. 

As a copywriter, I always recommend opening the door to future communications.  Tell the audience where they can find and follow you. 

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