Do you want to know a dirty little secret about me?
In the early 2000s, very, very briefly, I worked in politics. It was a career cul-de-sac between reporting jobs. Call it a youthful mistake. But, as with any mistake, I learned a lot. And the one big, useful thing I took away from my time in politics (apart from the government-backed pension) was how to write a good speech.
Speechwriting is a skill I’ve never regretted learning. If you’re a writer, it’s a skill you can take to the bank.
So, what’s the secret to writing a good speech?
Who your audience is informs everything about the speech: the tone, the level of detail, the angle, the core message you need to deliver. You need to know:
With the above in mind, what’s the most relevant message you can deliver to this audience? Don’t think just about what you want them to hear; think about what they want to hear and what they need to hear.
Write this key message down at the top of the page or on a Post-it and keep referring back to it as you write. It’ll stop you going off-piste. Everything you write should build on or up to this core message. You want them to leave with this message ringing in their ears.
Before you start writing anything, pull together all the information you’ll need to write the speech. This might include:
Make sure you know how much microphone time you’ve been given. Write to length. Do not go over. Do not try to fit too much in!
The rule in radio is that speaking time is about three words a second. That’s an OK guide for writing, but the absolute best thing you can do for yourself is regularly stop and read out loud, with a timer, everything you’ve written. It’s hugely helpful because it allows you to edit as you go.
For example, if you’re writing a five-minute speech and you’ve got four minutes of copy written and you haven’t hit your big important message yet, then that’s a good guide that you’re probably wasting a lot of time, trying to say too much, boring your audience, and risking your message getting lost in the noise.
I’ve found the best way to write a speech is to have a structure in mind before you start. To some extent, after the acknowledgements, you can base any speech on an old-fashioned essay structure:
In doing this, it’s important to remember a couple of things.
You know what sucks? Listening to a boring speech. As a journalist, I’ve listened to thousands of them. When I die, I’ll be asking my maker if I can have that time credited back.
To make a speech engaging, interesting and memorable, inject a little of your personality into it. You don’t have to crack jokes. You’re not performing at an open mic night. But tell a story. Add a personal anecdote. Let your audience know why you’re passionate about X, Y or Z. Let them see that passion.
There’s a famous and fabulous Maya Angelou quote: “At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel”. Keep that in mind as you write your speech. Don’t just show off your expertise; show off your warmth, relatability and character, too.
Finally, write in a voice that’s true to you (or the person who will be delivering the speech). Don’t be overly stuffy and formal. Obviously, don’t start dropping swear words and street slang, either. Keep the language and tone professional but relatable. Giving a speech is a human-to-human interaction.
Not every speech is an “I have a dream” or “we’ll never surrender”, and not every speaker is Martin Luther King or Winston Churchill. My advice is nor should it be/you try to be—unless your speech is literally trying to change the world. In which case, have at it.
However, I do think every good speech has a rhythm to it. Here are some little trips and tricks from the best speech givers of all time, which you can play with to make your speech more memorable:
I’m usually writing speeches for other people, so I like to spell things out so the reader’s eye doesn’t trip over things when they’re reading the speech. So, for example, I’ll write “fifty thousand dollars” instead of “$50,000”.
I also like to use a special form of punctuation to help keep the reader’s eye flowing across the text. You can underline, italicise or bold where emphasis should be placed. I also like to use ellipses to mark out clauses in sentences where the reader should slow down… or where I want to avoid confusion. It allows for a more lyrical form of speaking that is pleasing to the ear.
So, those are all the dirty little secrets I picked up during my dirty little political career. If you have any speechwriting tips I missed, let me know! I’d love to hear them.
18 April 2023
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