How To Write a Great Speech

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr - One of the greatest orators of all time (courtesy of Buddy Stone)

One of the toughest skill to master in the world of public relations is the art and science of crafting fabulous speeches. The devil is in the details. Penning persuasive prose takes lots of blood, sweat and tears. But it is all worth it at the end.

Are there some tips in writing good speeches? Definitely. Let me highlight some of the more prominent ones.

First, you need to understand your subject matter. Take some time to do research on your topic and ask as many questions as you need to. Often, the folks in PR doing the speech writing are not involved in the operational details of the topic. Spend time putting together the facts, figures, and interesting bits of information.

Next, you need to know your audiences. Who will the speaker be addressing? What are the concerns and cares of the people listening? Is there an "elephant in the room" which you need to consider?

You also need to appreciate who your speaker is. For communication professionals in public service, we often have to write speeches for politicians. Some have a certain preferred approach. Others are more open to varying styles. Read through their previous speeches and see if there is a certain "house style" or trademark which forms part of the speaker's personal brand.

Pay attention to the flow and rhythm of your sentences and paragraphs. A speech with long and languorous sentences are going to make people fall asleep. Similarly, one that is peppered full of short sentences will sound like a machine gun rattling away. Opt for a nice blend of short and long sentences.

Stay away from obtuse and bombastic words. This doesn't mean that your speech must sound like its written by a 6-year old. Choose words that are impactful yet easily understood by the majority.

Write what you speak and speak what you write. Go through each line mentally or better yet, say what you write out loud. Words and phrases which sound good on paper sometimes fall flat when delivered on a podium.

You also need to be aware of tongue twisters. Those convoluted combination of words that trip your tongue have no place in a public presentation.

Start strongly and aim the impress from the word "go". Speeches which begin with a whole laundry list of grammy award style "thank yous" make me snore. Aim to start with significant drama and suspense and shun conventional approaches.

Good speeches are also full of personality, colour and life. How you angle them depend on the occasion and the audience. A celebratory function call for something light-hearted and laced with humour. On the other hand, a rallying event needs to be fortified with strong and compelling phrases that motivate, inspire and encourage.

Finally, don't be afraid to revisit your speech and rewrite parts of it where necessary. Attempting to come up with a Gettysberg address in one sleepy afternoon is going to be impossible. Rome isn't built in a day. Take a walk in the part, have a coffee (or glass of wine if it works better), and come back to your script when you are sufficiently refreshed.

Some of the greatest speeches I have come across include the following. See if you can pick up anything from them:
1) Martin Luther King Jr's I Have A Dream
2) Steve Job's Commencement Address at Stanford University
3) Randy Pausch's Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon
4) Abraham Lincolin's Gettysburg Address (a little old school, but still charming)
5) Barack Obama (of course). I like this one at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

What are your experiences like with speech writing?

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