Speechwriting For The Rest Of Us

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Not all of us have a speechwriter.
  • No one has written the speech for you (or they have, and speech writing is NOT in their skillset)
  • You have to get a message across in one go
  • … You need a message
  • You’re trying to educate the audience, or spur them to action

Suggestion #1: Follow the 1–3–1 structure

If you’re new to speech writing (or speaking in general) you know how difficult it can be. You have to figure out what the hell you’re going to talk about, how you’re going to do so, all while ensuring you don’t pass out from the adrenaline spike or walk on stage without your pants. It can feel quite daunting to put together encouraging words and an effective speech, especially when you’re the ring leader that has to bring people together in some capacity. That’s the unfortunate nature of giving a speech: for the majority of the time, it’s just you up there.

You’ll noticed that Adam Grant works in threes here: giver, taker, & matcher (and then 3 methods of getting more givers). Starts with the argument, defines, it, gives 3 supporting arguments, then creates a call to action.

Suggestion #2: Movement is a Necessity

Have you ever seen someone stand infront of an audience and talk, and remain in the exact position they started in the entire time? Even behind a podium/table, they don’t sway with the stories, their hands don’t peel away from them, or they show little expression. It’s a common occurrence for anyone who’s new to speaking. Standing infront of a group of people staring at you while you talk can be daunting (there’s a reason why people are deathly afraid of it), and it’s even harder to try and fix (especially when you’re boxed in by those podiums or tables, hence why I typically stand up with a microphone and walk, or just project my voice. I’m a loud guy.)

  • Exposure: start gradual, and slowly expose yourself to speaking dynamics, presentations, etc., slowly growing in audience size. You may not have complete control over this, but if you can, set yourself up to have comfortably challenging group sizes and scenarios to present to.
  • Get yourself in the zone: have a pre-speech ritual you rehearse to get your head in the game. I like to take 3 deep breathes leading up to the speech, and on the third breathe fill my mind with thoughts of exciting times in my life. Then when I walk up, wave to the audience while smiling. Dress well (presentable but comfortable) and make sure you’re warmed up (maybe go for a walk before hand, around the building/up and down the halls in a quiet area).
  • Familiarize yourself with the area: if possible, get to the venue ahead of time. Survey it so you know the space you can take up, any obstacles in your way, or to just allow yourself to connect & understand the room.
Notice how he goes across the stage, projects his voice, and gestures with his hands?

Suggestion #3: Start With A Story

Every Sunday growing up, the pastor presenting the sermon would begin with a story they experienced in their life. It may have been something they heard from a friend, something they experienced when they were younger, or a story they heard from the internet. The details didn’t matter, just that the start of the sermon was always a story. It always had a point to it, one we’d learn at the end of the tale and the beginning of the actual “lesson” of the sermon. It always set the context for the lesson, introduced it, and was used as a way to define what the scripture aimed to teach.

  • The closer you tell it like it’s happening right then, the more exciting it is (EG: instead of “so I ran fast”, try saying “so here I am running as fast as I can”). This also allows you to embody the story and make it more dynamic
  • Lead up to a climax (IE: the resolving event/action, such as making the right or wrong decision and the consequences of that decision, then going on to explain what those mean)
  • End with a reference to the lesson you’re trying to make, using that as a bridge to the next point (the story → lesson format is kilometres better than the lesson → story format, which kind of spoils the story).
  • Yes, I used kilometres instead of miles. I’m Canadian. Fight me.
In this speech, Obama starts his speech talking about his family heritage and the sacrifices they made to build a better future for their children and grandchildren, and how that shaped Obama and what he would come to stand for.

Suggestion #4: End With A Call To Action

All great speeches serve to mobilize us. To encourage us to act, in some capacity, that is different than how we’re acting right now. Whether that action is specific or vague, large or small, current or in the future, these speeches call on us to do something. Ending with a call to action is an extremely beneficial practice in speeches, as it shifts the experience from the audience being passive listeners to active participants. They’re no longer idly absorbing information, but are now tasked with something to do.

Notice how in this speech, Charlie Chaplin’s character routinely uses the word “fight” in various scenarios. The call to action here is to “fight”, or to actively struggle for a better future.

Suggestion #5: Know When To Deviate From The Above

All rules are subject to challenge at one point or another. After all, life is not a textbook, and context matters more than anything. I’ve titled each section as a “suggestion” because what works best is truly dependent on many factors: you, your audience, your setting, your context, your goal. These different variables can determine the realities of your speech, and it’s important to acknowledge them. When you understand these factors and hold them in your mind as you prepare to speak, you’ll learn what situations may work best. Sometimes, you might need to go way beyond 3 points, and reach as high as 10 points you want to make in a presentation. Sometimes your speech doesn’t have a call to action: sometimes you just want to share a story, with a small lesson that no one needs to fully apply. Sometimes you’ll be stuck behind a podium and can’t move away from it, or maybe you need to tell a story while sitting down (physical restrictions, the mic being glued to the table, etc.).

Extra Suggestions From The Podium:

  • Practice Practice Practice! You adjust the more you’re exposed
  • If you’re comfortable & it’s possible, have a wireless mic (one on your head instead of a handheld one)
  • Mingle with the audience beforehand (allows you to have a friend in the crowd)
  • Tell people to sit close to the stage (energy amplifies when people are close, and dissipates the farther they are)
  • Avoid big words: if you have to use them, ensure you define the them
  • If the context is right, use positive emotions
  • Never turn your back on the crowd (if you have powerpoint slides, you can turn your heard to look back, but never turn 180 degrees)
  • Have a piece of paper with your outline, or memorize your outline (incase technology fails you)
  • Talk to people about their thoughts on the speech & ways you can improve
  • Hygiene, skincare, & clothing make a big difference (so take care of yourself)
  • Thank your emcee (and if appropriate, the support staff, the speakers before, and at the end the audience)
  • Use the word “imagine”, as it makes them engage with your stories and thus invest more into the speech
  • Use the “show of hands” trick, asking them to raise their hand (EG: “raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten butterflies before speaking”)
  • Breathe. You’re going to do great.

To Conclude…

Thank you for tagging along on this crash course of speechwriting and speaking 101. Speaking has been one of my greatest passions, one I hope others will begin to embrace, as it is becoming increasingly necessary for people to step up to the stage and call on each other to be better people. In this growing age of paralysis by analysis, information overwhelm, apathy and confusion, we need people to grab hold of the microphone (literally) and direct us to walk down a better path. I hope this long-winded and detailed crash course will help you start your own journey to becoming a positive influence in your community.

Supporting Authors & People

  • Scott Berkun (Author of Confessions of a Public Speaker), my first personal study in effective speaking
  • Olivia Fox Cabane (Author of Charisma Myth), my first personal study of charisma and personal magnetism
  • Charisma on Command (for always tying charisma to fun & exciting topics)
  • George Lakoff (Author of Don’t Think of an Elephant & Metaphor’s We Live By) & Frank Luntz (Author of Words That Work), for starting me on my journey to understanding the psychology of language
  • Mr. Fletcher (my highschool teacher), who taught me the necessity of effective speaking during my highschool Co-Prime-Minister run
  • “Tour Guide Mom” Michelle (my old boss when I was a Tour Guide), who always listened to my rants about how my tours went & encouraged my gradual improvement over time
  • The Communications Team (from my home department on my campus), each of you teaching me how to be an effective presenter to the camera & social media world, and the importance of taking care of oneself

Poli Sci grad, Comms Strategist, great at remembering names and terrible at pronouncing them. I write on political psych, practical philosophy, and random stuff

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