This post was originally featured in Communications Director magazine. Here's Part 1. Check back for Part 2.
It can strike fear into the heart of even the most seasoned communications professional. You’ve been asked to write a speech.
The first reaction is usually flattery that someone thinks so highly of your writing skills. Then there’s panic. Then mind-numbing, blank-page introspection. How do I start? Should I try for humor? Does my speaker need to sound like President Obama? Or should he just try to be himself? Is it too late to find another job? Why me?
Never fear. What to others may seem like a mysterious, arcane endeavor can actually be a very straight-forward and successful task. So what’s the secret to writing a successful speech? It’s quite simple: a successful speech is one the audience will listen and react to.
Yes, there are entire shelves of books on speechwriting. (I have one myself that’s coming out this fall in a project with Vital Speeches of the Day.) And yes people go to conferences and get training to become better speechwriters. But all of the books and all of the training essentially land on this single point: will the audience listen and will it react the way you want it to?
So here are five must-do tips for ensuring the next speech you write is must-listen-to material.
The first tip is to begin every speech by focusing on the audience itself. If this is the only tip you follow, the next speech you write will be better than most.
When I first began writing speeches, an older and wiser speechwriter took me aside and explained this very bluntly. Like a lot of younger writers, I wanted the speeches I wrote to sound grandiose and soaring. I wanted the language to be lyrical and every speech to get a standing ovation.
“Listen,” he said, “all audiences are the same. They just want to know how to be healthier, wealthier or happier. If you can give them even one of those, you’ll do just fine.”
In fact, every audience member is asking the same thing when your speaker stands at the podium: What is this speaker going to say that’s going to make my life better?
Answer that first before you begin to draft your own messages.
Too many writers turn the speaker/audience paradigm around and begin with what they want to say. The result is that speakers seem out of touch and boring because they haven’t identified a common problem.
So tip number one is to focus on the audience and solve their needs. If you write a speech that could make them healthier, wealthier or happier, they will be interested in what your speaker says and you’ve got the beginnings of a great speech.
The second big tip for a successful speech is to rely more on emotions and less on logic.
I was listening to a radio program a few weeks ago about an effort by photographers in the United States to show the new face of poverty in the country. The interviewer asked why it was important to get these photographs in front of everyday people rather than simply giving them the data about poverty.
The photographer being interviewed said something every speechwriter should hear. “The fact of the matter is,” he said, “anecdote trumps facts every time.”
All of us are creatures of emotions. It’s why television commercials asking for asking for aid money to feed the hungry or help those injured in natural disasters use images of destruction and despair.
Unfortunately, too many speakers believe if they just explain the situation in a cool and reasoned way, the audience will get it. But if you really want to connect with an audience, use emotional devices. And the best way to do that is by telling stories.
More than any other device, stories can deliver the emotional appeal that audiences respond to. Stories can actually bring material to life and are often more believable than facts alone. Why? Because they do two things very well.
Stories let audience members place themselves inside the story, relate it to events in their own lives, and compare it with something personal to them. They also allow the listeners reach their own conclusions about the facts by putting abstract, logical data into context.
I encourage speakers to include stories about who they are or how they learned what they know to be true. Teaching stories – where they learned a greater truth – are especially powerful and emotional.
-- To be continued --