Recently I had to give a speech, and, because it is such a rarity in my life, I was exceedingly nervous. I practiced over and over again, with sweaty palms and palpitating heartbeat, and I wrote and rewrote this sucker. It wasn’t even a long speech or particularly important to my career. But it had been such a long time since I had been expected to stand before a crowd and speak eloquently — once upon an adolescence I was captain of the drama department and on the debate team — that I let myself get excessively Type-A on this assignment.
And the whole experience got me thinking about the nature of speeches: political and professional, from wedding toasts to sales pitches to presidential history-makers. How does writing a speech relate to our articulation of a particular topic? What skills are involved in translating a good idea into a great speech? Do these same skills translate to successful communication in general
Here are 8 points of importance that I came to appreciate in the writing of my speech (which went off without a hitch, by the way). Take from them what you will. I recognize that they are basic, but it was the basics that I struggled with the most.
- Time: How much time do you have to give the speech? How much time can you devote to your particular topic? Determining from the beginning how much time you have will answer a lot of variables involved in writing your speech: length, detail, focus, etc. Start here before you think about…
- Audience: To whom will you be speaking? What is their given knowledge level on your topic? What does this audience find interesting? Is this formal? Can you make jokes? Know your audience and the tone of your speech will begin to take shape even if it’s not yet written.
- Begin with your introduction that establishes who you are, your purpose, and your topic. Depending on your audience (see above), you may want to include a joke, anecdote, or interesting fact. Once you’ve got a catchy and clear introduction, the real work can begin. Now it’s time to…
- Write: Organize your information into main points (between three and ten, depending on the length of your speech and the focus of the topic) and prioritize these according to importance and effectiveness. Once you have this outline, it will be easier to write, write, write. Add support to each point using statistics, facts, examples, anecdotes, quotations or other supporting material. What is the goal of your speech? What is the final idea you want to express?
- Delete: Which points aren’t crucial to your speech? Is your point/goal mangled with too many anecdotes? Practice what you have. Are you in danger of stepping over your time limit?
- Smooth it out: Link your introduction, points, and conclusions together with smooth transitions. Make sure that everything flows logically and that your audience is with you, not wondering where you’re going with this.
- Conclude: Write a conclusion that summarizes each of your points, restates your main purpose and leaves the audience with a lasting impression.
- Practice:Over and over again. Get comfortable. Know what you’re going to say and know it well. This will prevent slip-ups and other snafus.
Note: It is important to practice the speech. Practice breathing, pausing, and training yourself to NOT rush through the whole thing. This is a natural inclination but should be avoided, absolutely.