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How to write the perfect speech

A speechwriter is part-PRO, but also part psychotherapist, comedian and voice coach.

It’s what makes speechwriting one of the most rewarding jobs we do as communicators.

But it’s fraught with risks.

Done well and it can make a speaker’s career. Done poorly and, at best, it will send an audience to sleep. At worst, it will make the speaker look like a fool and send their share price tumbling.

It’s no surprise that highly-acclaimed speechwriter Simon Lancaster says responsibility for writing a speech is “often passed around like a grenade with its pin pulled out”.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Follow these tips and the task will be far less daunting.

Think of the audience first
It helps to write on a post-it note what the speech is about – and what you want the audience to do or feel when they have logged off. You need to persuade them to believe something or do something. The act of giving a speech has to have a purpose.

Copy techniques used more than 2,000 years ago
The ancient Greeks argued that there were three dimensions to persuasive speech: ethos – the character and credibility of the speaker; pathos – the stories that move the audience emotionally; and logos – the proof points or logic behind the argument. Take careful note of all three and you will write a speech that moves your audience from where they are to where you want them to be.

A speech is where theatre meets business
A speech reveals the whole person. You need to bring out the speaker’s personality, passions, life experiences and sense of humour.

Liberate yourself from the constraints of other written formats. Punchy, to-the-point sentences work well in press releases, reactive quotes and statements because they need to be ‘quotable’ and attract attention. A string of short sentences can make some speakers sound breathless.

Allow yourself to not always follow the rules of grammar, to use repetition for effect and to use contractions if these feel more natural to the speaker.

Ditch the cynicism
As PROs, we quite rightly need to think about how a message might land to a cynical audience and what we can do to counter this. The best speeches have the cynics in mind, but they are uplifting. Think of Tony Robbins, Brené Brown or Sir Ken Robinson.

Learn about style
Paddy Ashdown’s former speechwriter, Max Atkinson, did some important research that proved that three simple techniques can vastly improve the impact of your speech. They are: three-part lists (I came, I saw, I conquered), contrasts (to be or not to be) and rhetorical questions (What have the Romans done for us?). It’s almost impossible to use them too frequently. And in combination they give you Obama-like powers.

Make sure your speaker practises delivering their speech
Your speaker’s audience may be on mute, but it’s much harder to grab their attention over video conference platforms than from a podium.

Practise the speech with your speaker until they come across naturally, fluently and authoritatively. Consider a pre-recorded speech, if that might make them come across better.

Outsource the task of writing the speech just once
It’s never a good idea to wing a speech.

Rather than setting aside a couple of hours to rush out a draft you know your chief executive won’t be happy with, commission a speechwriter just once.

The UK Speechwriters’ Guild has speechwriters with experience from many different sectors and industries. We’re a nerdy bunch. We collect jokes, anecdotes and powerful phrases the way some people collect wine or stamps.

Give a speechwriter the background information and see what they come up with. Just the way they present their scripts on the page can give you a perspective on how it works. As a communicator, you’ll learn fast, and you’ll expand your skillset for the future.

Written by Jessica Shepherd, senior communications consultant and member of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild

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