Speech Writing Tips
Thinking of tackling a speech on your own? Here are a few tips to keep in mind while writing your speech.
THINK OF YOUR AUDIENCE
Before you start writing, think about your audience. All communication is marketing, and a speech is no exception. You are trying to sell something in some way, whether that means selling your own sincerity about the happy couple that just got married; rallying your sales force behind your agenda for the coming year; or coming across as a professional speaker that folks will want to hire again when the need is there.
Ask yourself what the audience expects and what the audience wants. Few people want to sit through something too formal, but sometimes formal is necessary. (Think of a U.N. speech or State of the Union address.) With formal speeches often comes the opportunity to wax really poetic with the language, if you can muster some golden words.
Less formal speeches allow you to speak ... well, like people speak. Street language. And this is where you want to be more entertaining. Make sure to use jokes (NOT lame jokes, please – don't make people laugh out of sympathy) and stories.
If you want people to listen, start strong. A startling statistic, a funny story, an appropriate anecdote ... these are good starters. Think Hollywood: they often give you a bang-up introductory scene before they even roll the opening credits. I often prefer this approach, where you don't even start with "Good Evening, Ladies and Gents." Instead, you start with the attention grabber, THEN if you need to say hello, you do so.
If you're going to start out with a joke just to break the ice, as a lot of people do, at LEAST make it relevant to the rest of the speech. If you don't, I believe it comes across too much as a ploy rather than as actual material.
And for heaven's sake, PLEASE don't start out with an apology. Starting people out with the admission that you're a terrible speaker begs the question, "Then why are you wasting our time?" If you're going to struggle with the speech, then struggle. In a non-professional setting, people will be supportive. If it's a professional setting, you might honestly consider whether you're the best person to be speaking. If so, I encourage you to get professional help with the speech writing and/or presentation. After all, people are expecting to get value out of your speech.
A bit of famous advice: Start by telling what you're going to tell them; then tell them; then tell them what you told them. Why approach a speech in this way? Because a lot of people learn better by seeing and doing than just by listening. If you only say things one time and someone spaces out for a minute, they'll be lost about the continuity of your speech. So make sure you clarify often how everything is fitting together, so they can see the big picture and understand the details.
This isn't necessary, of course, in short speeches like wedding speeches, retirement roasts, toasts, and so on. Often these types of speeches are simply a collection of stories about someone, so there's not much use in guiding the listener through.
HANG YOUR HAT ON A THEME
Having a central theme to your speech can make structuring the speech easier and can assist with the whole repetition idea. For instance, your theme might be the way a business or even a graduating class is like a motorcycle. You can then go on to explain who is represented by each part of the motorcycle. (Recalling a great speech I once heard.) Sticking with this central theme helps the audience see how everything fits together, and allows you to repeat yourself by referring back to the theme: i.e., "So if the engine is our production floor and the sales force is our set of wheels and our investors are the gasoline, who's driving this crazy thing?"
CONSIDER THE REQUIRED ACTION
Before you consider your speech finished, make sure you ask an important question: "What do I want of the audience, and have I gotten that from them?" If you're only trying to entertain, then ask yourself whether the speech is funny. If you want to send them home with something to think about or something to do, make sure to ask them of this as you're wrapping things up, even if you've asked them along the way. (You don't want them thinking it was just an incidental request.) If you want them hiring you again in the future, ask whether they'll fill out a simple survey after the speech -- this survey can ask questions that are useful for your own improvement (what they liked, what they didn't, what topics they would like more information on, etc.) while also letting them know about other speeches (and related products) you have available. Read some books on professional speaking to make sure you approach this at the right time and in the right way.
BEFORE YOU FINISH, ASK YOURSELF THIS:
Would you want to sit in the audience to hear the speech you've written? This is the question you need to ask when the speech is finished. And actually, if you ask yourself this question several times along the way, you may save yourself some work. Rewriting a little bit of speech is a lot easier than rewriting the whole thing!
In short, make sure you're not just lecturing, but that you're providing stories, stats, quotes, jokes, and information that the audience is after. If they want to be entertained, then entertain. If they want to be inspired, then inspire. Keep in mind that people WANT to enjoy their time listening to you. In most situations, you'll have their support from the beginning. Give them what they're after and they'll continue to give you that support throughout your speech and beyond.