Part 5: Preparing Your Message
From the time of the ancient Greeks, there have been handbooks on how to write the perfect speech. Many of them are still excellent – and relevant - today. The simple fact is that the components of good speech don’t change much, even with the passage of a couple of thousand years.
But not every spokesperson needs to read the philosophy of Demosthenes and Cicero. Not every spokesperson wants to spend the time to review the great speeches of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. And very few spokespersons have the opportunity to address the great issues that made the immortal speeches of FDR and Winston Churchill possible.
What we will try to do in this section is to lay out a few simple rules and guidelines for the busy spokesperson to use in getting a good speech down – fast.
Although there are a number of different types of speeches, ranging from a friendly after-dinner roast to a ringing accusation of wrongdoing, the vast majority of spokesperson face speeches of only two basic types:
We’ll focus on these two.
The preparation recommended for both these speech types is basically the same. The first step is to determine your primary objective. What is it that you most want the audience to take home? What issue prompted you to accept the speaking engagement in the first place? You should be able to identify a primary purpose that will probably involve either getting the audience to “understand and believe” your message or spurring them to some particular action. If you want the audience to understand, then you will be preparing a speech to inform. If you want the audience to take action, then you will be preparing a speech to persuade. We’ll discuss how to design both types of speeches in Chapter 23.
Before making a final decision on your objective, you should complete one of the most important preparation activities for all public appearances: an audience analysis.
Performing an audience analysis is, at its simplest, just gathering information about your audience, to help identify their frame of reference. You’ll need to identify what they relate to, what their needs are, what turns them on, and, of course, what turns them off. This information can usually be gathered by interviewing the program chairperson (the person responsible for scheduling programs). Other good sources for this information include members of the scheduled audience with whom you are friendly, and past speakers from the same forum.
A good audience analysis will provide at least the following information about your audience:
Two pieces of program information will prove useful. First, will there be cocktails before you speak? A well-lubricated audience has a shorter attention span than a sober one, and tends to be more demonstrative as well. A brief speech of a non-controversial nature is in order for a somewhat swacked audience.
A second area of concern is whether the news media will be invited. If your remarks will be televised or quoted on the local radio or in the newspaper, you may adjust your remarks to a wider target audience. You might, under those conditions, choose to design your message with the news media in mind, instead of the live audience assembled for your speech.
This may seem like a lot of information to gather. It is. Chances are, however, you won’t have to ask the program chairperson all these questions directly. You should be able to fill in a few blanks yourself.
The less you know about your audience when you deliver your speech, the more you risk failure – or delivering a mediocre speech that has little lasting effect. The more information you have to work with while you are planning, the better are your chances of putting together a really potent message that will long endure in your audience’s mind. Far too many speakers assume that it’s just another meeting of the same old Rotary Club, the League of Women Voters, or just another college class. When was the last time you heard a really memorable speech?
A final note on audience analysis. It’s a good idea never to completely close the book on any audience until your speech is over and done with. I make it a point to arrive early, so that I can mingle with the other early arrivers; it helps me quietly continue fine-tuning my audience analysis. Even while you are speaking, read carefully the audience’s reaction to your message. This will help you make any mid-course corrections that may improve the bottom-line results of your speech.
Now that you have an objective in mind, and a solid understanding of who your audience is, it’s time to begin gathering subject data. It’s a good idea to try to have enough lead time to accommodate a fair amount of leisurely brainstorming as you design your presentation. During the brainstorming stage, I suggest that you begin taking notes. Write each pertinent thought on a separate 3x5 index card; file them away carefully for future use. Every magazine or newspaper you read, every movie you see – every relevant bit of information you encounter – think about how it might apply to your speech. If something you hear or see seems even remotely related, put it on a 3x5 card and file it.
After a while, you will have established a hefty file of note cards, but your file box by itself probably wouldn’t make much of a speech. The notes combined with the subject information you have in your head and all the conventional reference materials you’ve researched are usually more than enough for several speeches. The trick is to winnow the information down to an amount you can handle in achieving your desired goal.
Now is the time to sort through all the material you’ve gathered and to begin creating a basic outline. As we’ll discuss in the next chapter, the informative and the persuasive speeches require different structures and organizations.