You don’t need to look beyond this blog to know that a great speech requires all sorts of ingredients. It needs to be relevant, clear, seamless and original. It has to leave an audience wanting more, whilst understanding that for all its content, your audience will hardly remember any of it a day later. And even once you have a fabulous script, there are then the challenges of delivering it.
So, let’s begin by asking how to plan a speech and start the writing process. Here are five questions you should be asking a long time before you’ve even put pen to paper.
1) What’s the key message of your speech?
At the risk of sounding trite, you can only write a speech as good as your brief. And that brief can be defined very simply indeed. It’s the same if you’re writing for a wedding, a pitch or a party political conference:
“In no more than a sentence, what’s the one thing you want your audience to remember the day after you’ve spoken?”. It’s the first question we ask our clients, and it’s the first question to ask yourself because it gets to the very heart of how to structure your approach.
Say you were speaking at a work event, and you answered: “that new product they’ve launched is so exciting – I need one!” That would lead to a very different speech than if you’d answered “it’s really important I follow that guy on LinkedIn”.
The same goes for social events. Say you’ve been asked to give a eulogy. You could answer: “she was a well-loved friend and wonderful mother” or “what a full life she led; and what a sense of humour”. Again, two very different approaches which lead to two very different goals.
2) What’s the appropriate tone for your speech?
Having decided what you want them to remember, it’s worth focusing on the tone. We ask for the appropriate balance between humour and sincerity. The humour doesn’t just mean jokes, and sincerity doesn’t just mean a relentless outpouring of emotion. This question should be about the way you believe your audience will best receive your speech – and the way they will be most likely to remember the key message. If you want your quarterly review at work to be 75% light (with 25% more hard hitting and sincere) you’ll achieve a completely different effect to a speech written with the proportions reversed, for example.
3) Is there a theme that could hold the speech together?
Is there something that can hold your speech together? A personality trait, a reference point or a perfect analogy? The greatest speeches tend not to be a string of stories thrown together, but an argument that is peppered with ‘evidence’. Think of the theme as the argument and the stories as the evidence. Doing otherwise is the speech writing equivalent of putting the horse before the cart!
4) What are the ‘must haves’ of this particular speech?
What do you have to say? It sounds obvious, but it’s a crucial question. The bits that can’t be avoided include the opening (or ‘allocution’), the thank yous, and a toast. If it’s a business speech you might need to share some numbers or processes. A social speech might need to mention absent friends or a story that everyone will be expecting. Either way, these need to make it into your ‘evidence’ list – that way you can weave them into the theme, rather than beginning (or ending) with a shopping list of the bits that didn’t fit the ‘fun’ part.
5) How long do you have to speak?
We are often sent huge draft speeches and asked if we can improve them. We then ask how long the speaker has been allocated – and are regularly faced with a massive gap between how long the client thinks the speech lasts and how long it should actually take! Our rule of thumb is 120 words per minute. So a ten-minute speech means 1200 words. If you know that before you start writing it can save a hell of a lot of angst later on!
It’s no exaggeration to say that these five questions have transformed the way many of our clients think about their speeches. Their answers make the next steps – gathering further information and planning the speech itself – considerably more effective (and efficient).