Part 5: Preparing Your Message
Anyone can design a good speech – not necessarily a great one – but certainly a good one. Speech writing is a special skill that’s part science and part art. A great speechwriter is a valuable asset to his or her organization.
Reading a message and hearing a message are entirely different methods of communicating. The reader of print proceeds at his/her own desired pace. When readers encounter words or thoughts that require extra thought, they can simply pause for a minute, and then resume reading at their own discretion.
A listener can’t stop to ponder a word or phrase without missing the speaker’s next few words. The speaker dictates at what pace the listener must listen. If the speaker’s message isn’t instantly intelligible, the listener will be lost, at least for the moment.
The language differences between oral and written communication are many. Oral communication uses:
When the novice speechwriter attempts to filter his or her “oral thoughts” through a pen or pencil, those thoughts frequently either lose the flavor and spontaneity of conversation, or they cease to make sense. I encourage speechwriters to dictate their first drafts into tape recorders and then to transcribe the tapes into written drafts. If you catch yourself thumbing through a thesaurus in search of a dazzling new word, or writing stuffy phrases without contractions, you should consider these strong clues that you’re writing for your audience’s eyes when you should be focusing on their ears.
Earlier I stated that silver bullets do not exist that will make you an effective spokesperson. There may be an exception to this rule. There is a single style that, when followed, will almost always establish a solid speech foundation. That style is yours. Write in a way that comes naturally; be yourself. Don’t imitate your mentor. Don’t dress up your speech with stolen phrases and foreign clichés that you wouldn’t use in normal conversation and whose meaning may not be entirely clear to you anyway.
The occasion may arise when you may have to write in a way that doesn’t come naturally. This will occur when preparing another speaker’s script. This assignment is particularly difficult and, as such, is usually reserved for professionals. When ghosting a speech, you must carefully analyze the person who will be delivering the speech and write in a way that he/she would use naturally.
Editing is an important part of speech writing. This may entail light editing requiring a word change or two, or it may be necessary to perform major surgery, perhaps deleting or rearranging whole sections. Rarely will your first attempt at a manuscript produce the best results you are capable of. Letting the manuscript ferment for a while as you clear your head tending to other matters will give you a different perspective when you return to commence the revising.
Revising should continue throughout the entire rehearsal period as well. If it doesn’t sound right, change it. Occasionally, I have found it necessary to discard an entire speech and start from scratch. This is a healthy exercise that allows the speechwriter a fresh start and renewed creative energies.
Write in an active form, not passive. Use specific, concrete language. Opt for crisp, concise statements instead of glowing generalities. Although oral communication tends to be more repetitive than written communication, speechwriters should repeat key ideas and themes, not unnecessary words and redundant verbiage.
Remember that your message must be instantly intelligible. Your goal is to communicate and not to impress your audience with a billion dollar vocabulary. If, following your presentation, your audience leaves in a fog as to what you were saying, but dazzled by your big words, then you have failed.
At the risk of seeming to contradict myself, I must encourage you to be creative. Above I suggested that you be yourself – true enough, but you should be your creative self. Don’t let a new idea percolating inside you go untried. Attack your speechwriting with a fresh attitude unshackled by the rigors of day-to-day drudgery.
Write in an environment that draws out your creative juices. When you seem to be in a rut, agonizing over your speech with strained results, put it away. Get relaxed. Take a walk. Do whatever you must to clear your mind and renew your flow of material. This will help you find fresh approaches to old ideas.
The more creative and fresh your speech is, the more audience interest it will garner. Audiences are exposed to thousands of speeches every year, especially during an election year. Let yours stand apart from the pack.
One of the most common errors in the typical speech is failure to link key thoughts together. Major thoughts and concepts seem just to pop up and then vanish, with no proper introduction and no acknowledgment that the subject will change. This is a sure way to confuse listeners.
Listeners should be eased from one thought to the next. Each point should lead to the next point clearly and in uninterrupted fashion. Transitions tie key thoughts together much like mortar holds bricks together.
A good speech uses a variety of transitions. I have identified six types of transitions that you will find fairly easy to implement.
The use of humor as a speechwriter’s tool deserves special mention. Humor can be a powerful technique; unfortunately, many speakers find their jokes and stories funnier than their audiences do.
Not everyone has the kind of personality and delivery skills necessary to use humor effectively. If you are one of these people, then don’t force it. Be yourself. Just because it sounded great and looked easy when Johnny Carson did it, doesn’t mean it will work for you.
There are different types of humor, just as there are different types of speakers and audiences. If you have a knack for using a specific type of humor, then by all means use it, with these caveats.
Humor should have a specific purpose in your speech – a purpose other than simply generating laughter. The joke or story you tell should relate to your message; it should reinforce your message, not compete with it.
Off-color humor is taboo. There is a very thin line between a risqué story and a dirty joke – be certain that you don’t cross it. If you have any doubts about how your audience will interpret or react to your joke, then abandon it and find a new one. Don’t risk embarrassing both yourself and your audience. Ethnic jokes and sexist humor are almost never appropriate for business spokespersons.
One final thought on the use of humor. I’ve seen many a speaker build audience rapport by using slightly self-deprecating humor. They use themselves as the butt of their jokes; Abraham Lincoln used to kid about his homeliness. This type of humor can be used quite effectively. Audiences seem to appreciate speakers who can laugh at themselves, people who don’t take everything too seriously. But this can work in another way, too. Audiences seem to be turned off by arrogant or cocky spokespersons. You can largely defuse this potential problem by being humble and poking a little fun at yourself.
I find the following sources helpful in keeping writing skills sharp and in putting together a speech.
For samples of speeches designed for or written by influential speakers, you can’t beat Vital Speeches. This semimonthly publication only costs $75. a year for a mailed copy ($65. for emailed copy), and it contains a wealth of both good and bad examples to learn from. I highly recommend that companies or persons with substantial responsibilities as spokespersons subscribe to it. You can subscribe to it by writing:
Vital Speeches of the Day
For advice on style and technique, it’s hard to beat the small investment required to purchase either of the following two paperbacks:
The Elements of Style
How to Write and Deliver a Speech