Professional Speechwriter Shares His Secrets
NOTE: In addition to the text below, a podcast interview with me about how to be a speechwriter can be heard at this link, with my thanks to Jim Frawley of bellwetherhub.com:
And now, what follows are some proven tips based on experience ….
I’m about to make you a better speechwriter if you’d like to be one.
As far as I know, I’m the only former Fortune 500 Mktg./Comm. VP who helps today’s execs and their teams be more effective at sales meetings, product launches, etc. I do that when I create their speeches and/or PowerPoint presentations, write their video scripts, coach their on-stage delivery and use what I learned from decades of marketing success to inspire audiences as a motivational speaker.
But while I’d be happy to have your or your company hire me, it also feels right to “give back” in some way … which is why I’d like to share some of the techniques that cause many clients to say I’m the best at what I do. So, my goal here is clear: to help YOU become a better speechwriter, if you’d like to – for yourself or for someone else. Or at least to give you the knowledge that will help you recognize the attributes of a well-crafted speech.
Perspective: I happen to be a guy who can barely change a light bulb. I’m clueless about what’s under the hood of a car. I can injure myself if I try to hang a picture on the wall instead of on my thumb. Mercifully, however, I long ago discovered that WORDS are my friends.
I was meant to be a Writer and I’ve been doing it successfully for decades. So let me begin with the first and most important place to start in writing ANYTHING but, in this case, writing a speech
What is your concise take-away message?
Before you write your first word, consider the message you want to lodge into the brains of those receiving it. The most common communications mistake I observe across the board – in speeches, TV commercials, business memos, corporate videos, etc. – is trying to convey too many points at once. These days more than ever, a scattershot approach will not be effective.
Audiences won’t make an effort to connect the dots between your thoughts. It’s up to your writing to do that for them — especially with today’s shortened attentions spans.
The Statistic Brain Research Institute has shared a study1 which notes:
* Average attention span of a gold fish: 9 seconds
* Average human attention span in 2001: 12 seconds
* Average human attention span in 2015: 8.25 seconds
If you try to convey too much in a single communication, your message won’t stick. Organize your writing around a single, overall message – your communications “North Star” – and your big picture point will be better remembered. Every speech should have one major, overall point to be effective.
It’s also true – as the old saying goes – that we get only one chance to make a first impression. Start off strong and relevant to your audience. The first sentence of this chapter was intended to get your attention and offer you a “WIIFM” (“What’s In it For Me?” ) up front.
Take maximum advantage of the Internet
A few decades ago, I found myself traipsing over to the Barnes & Noble book store in Manhattan – buying books as “research” for whatever I needed to write.I’m no expert in sports, art history, automobiles or many other subjects, but some of my clients are. They appreciate analogies in subjects they care about and relate to. These days, I let my fingers do the walking straight to Google.
Type in “How to write a best man speech” … “maid of honor speech” … “award acceptance speech” … “sales speech” … “eulogy” and so on. Along with various agencies and freelancers like me wanting to sell you their services, you’ll also find writing “samples” online to read and consider.
And by the way – ever want to write a poem? Sites like www.rhymezone.com and others offer help that I couldn’t have imagined when I was pounding out words on a typewriter.
Finding relevant QUOTES to make a speech more vivid and impactful is yet another example of our amazing ability to access knowledge in mere seconds via the Internet.
It surprises me how many people don’t turn to the Internet as much as they could. Factual research. Helpful history. Statistics. Even sourcing a range of images for a PowerPoint presentation to visualize your message for an audience. (I use services like www.istockphoto.com to obtain visuals for my clients or my own communications workshops.
My ability to create an impactful speech or presentation – thanks to the Internet – has greatly enriched the writing I can offer to clients these days … while increasing the speed with which I provide it.
Bottom line for your writing: take MAXIMUM advantage of the Internet. You may not realize how abundant are the resources from which you can draw.
The writer’s paradox and other truths:
it takes longer to write shorter!
(a) It takes longer to write shorter.
(b) You MUST be willing to step back, edit and take time to critique yourself ruthlessly.
(c) When writing a speech you MUST hear it ALOUD (not just in your head!) in order to properly evaluate it.
(d) I use a specific technique I call Emphasis Words when I write a speech. It’s proven helpful to many of my clients. The space for this chapter isn’t long enough for me to include a sample speech. (Besides, many of the speeches I write for product launches, sales meetings, etc., are CONFIDENTIAL.) So I’ll illustrate by sharing another kind of writing where the same tips apply.
Real illustration of these tips in action – in a short poem!
Let me illustrate so you’ll see how versatile these tips can be …. for speechwriting and other purposes.
When I’m not writing speeches, I write songs — just the lyrics. (If I could compose, too, I’d be dangerous!) I’m going to tell you about an opportunity I was offered as a result of my actively networking. Networking’s another best practice that applies to other kinds of writing, too.
Thanks to today’s Internet (I told you!) I became aware of and joined the “Indie Collaborative” group on Facebook, founded by Eileen Sherman and Grant Maloy Smith. If you’re a music business professional of any kind, you might want to join this group. It holds valuable meetings in cities around the United States.
You’ll find them at: www.indiecollaborative.com
As a result of the new visibility my membership provided, I began to “meet” (often online) songwriters from around the world – not just in the USA. I eventually came in touch with the team of Dr. Deepak Chopra — the famous author, public speaker and alternative medicine advocate.
In the summer of 2017, I was invited to compose and deliver a poem for Dr. Chopra. The occasion was the launch of his new collection of poems and songs called “HOME — Where Everyone Is Welcome: Poems & Songs Inspired by American Immigrants.”
My assignment was to write about HOME – and immigrants – within a strict 200 word limit. As I’ve mentioned, it takes longer to write shorter! So just as I would in writing a speech, I spent considerable time thinking about my takeaway message – my North Star for the assignment. You’ll see the poem for yourself in just a bit. But first a perspective on Emphasis Words.
In real life – in natural conversation – we speak SOME phrases at throwaway speed … but we emphasize OTHER words and phrases when they especially matter … to inject added impact and drama … or to compel attention to a thought.
The pattern is natural and automatic for everyone: one’s INTENTION affects vocal DELIVERY. So when I’m writing a speech, I always HEAR myself deliver it aloud BEFORE I let my client see the text.
Taking the time to do that … for any piece of writing that’s meant to be listened to … helps me (and can help YOU) write text with more resonance for the audience who will hear it.
Let’s face it: almost any human being standing in front of an audience with the task of delivering a message will feel significantly more pressure than he or she might feel in simply sharing thoughts over a quiet cup of coffee. Capitalizing your Emphasis Words in writing that’s to be SPOKEN, offers practical and versatile value.
What’s more, many people experience “stage fright” which can make them eager to “get it over with” by delivering the text like a speeding freight train. I’ve found that typing KEY words in caps helps my clients, automatically, to slow down and concentrate on expressing the MEANING of what they’re saying. That better paced, nuanced delivery can make a spoken message more vivid and memorable for the listener.
Aside from protecting an executive delivering a speech from using too-speedy a pace, the same technique is useful for ANY text you write in which emphasis can alter meaning.
For example, search Wikipedia for: Stress (linguistics)
There you will find an illustration of the connection between stressing a word with emphasis and the MEANING that a sentence conveys. The term for this technique is “contrastive stress” – using the spoken word to create CONTRAST between a key word and its surroundings.
Try saying the following sentences aloud … each time “hitting” with EXTRA emphasis the word I’ve put in CAPITAL letters. (In the first sentence, “I” is the emphasized word.)
I didn’t drive our car yesterday. (Somebody else did.)
I DIDN’T drive our car yesterday. (I’m INSISTING that I didn’t)
I didn’t DRIVE our car yesterday. (I just SAT in it and read.)
I didn’t drive OUR car yesterday. (I drove someone else’s.)
I didn’t drive our CAR yesterday. (I drove our truck.)
I didn’t drive our car YESTERDAY (I drove it the day before that.)
I didn’t drive our CAR yesterday. (I drove our truck.)
I didn’t drive our car YESTERDAY (I drove it the day before that.)
See what I mean? Emphasis words – making them stand out in your writing of text for spoken delivery – can be very useful for a speaker … and can help an audience more easily get the point.
Now that you understand the Emphasis Words concept in writing a speech, you’ll see how I used it in writing (and then delivering) my poem for Dr. Chopra.
I’m convinced that my “built in” capitalization of my chosen ‘Emphasis Words’ was important to my receiving wonderful feedback from the event.
ONE HOME, MANY BUILDERS
Where did I COME from?
How did my ANCESTORS view the world?
Leading LIVES I’ll never live
In HOMES I’ll never know.
Latvia … Germany … Russia … Poland …
Mostly just NAMES to me – Places I’ll never SEE
But what’s been CLEAR across the YEARS
from the time I was a boy was how MUCH they cared
Seeking FREEDOM in the air
Ready to find it ANY-where
With a NEW home of their OWN.
They came HERE
Now it’s up to ME
To be the BEST that I can be
Memories of GRAND-parents
from my youth
Inspiring MY own quest for truth
I’ve HEARD how hard they worked
Of the duties they NEVER shirked
A HUMBLING context
for MY troubles
Whatever burdens I bear,
So much LESS than theirs
I will CONTINUE to do my best
To HONOR the path they set
Doing what I can to improve this earth
In memory of those who gave my life birth
Everyone’s an immigrant SOME place
But we all have ONE planet as OUR space
This earth is HOME to us ALL
Between us EACH,
let there be NO walls
We SHARE this home!
Let us THINK about that.
Dare to be “personal” and “human”
In the first jobs of my professional career in New York City – initially in educational publishing … later in consumer packaged goods when I was marketing and promoting laundry detergents, toothpastes and margarine – I wasn’t expected to give “stand up presentations.”
That changed when I went to Avon Products, Inc., a motivational culture founded around direct selling. At one point, I was responsible for every aspect of creating 300 new products a year. At another time, I published the Avon sales brochure – page after page of print ads, designed to achieve the company’s sales and profit goals for the new selling period every two weeks.
Part of my job in those capacities was “selling” of a different kind – presenting my ideas persuasively to management or my fellow employees. It’s a separate topic, how I gained the courage – and eventually the skill – to get on my feet and present my ideas with what needed to appear as (and BE) comfortable and confident. Eventually, I learned how to do that!
But success is not just about the skill of presenting. Let’s not under-estimate the importance of the WRITING, itself, to achieve a desired impact. So here are several observations I urge you to keep in mind if you’re writing a speech for yourself or for someone else: allow yourself be PERSONAL.
Don’t just share the business “content” you need to deliver … let the audience know that you CARE about the message you’re conveying. Address them like fellow human beings, not just placeholders on an organizational chart. This advice has implications for the content of your talk as well as the way in which it’s written.
When I’m writing a speech for an executive, I usually take the input via a telephone interview. (I write for people around the world – many of whom I’ll never meet in person.)
So that you understand my writing process – and I would suggest the same to you, if you plan to write a speech for someone else – I always RECORD my “input” interviews. Achieving excellent results for a client isn’t only about writing. It’s also about asking the right questions to elicit the best content.
I listen in stereo, so to speak. One “ear” listens from the audience’s point of view: is the message clear? Is it making sense?
The other listens from my client’s point of view. We’ve already established the take-away message, but is the content I’m hearing EFFECTIVE at delivering and supporting that one key thought? Is it leading the intended audience to the “North Star” of the takeaway message?
I always try to establish a “safe space” with the executive I’m writing for. First, anything that’s confidential STAYS confidential. Second, I like to make the sessions as intimate as possible – ideally, in just a one-to-one conversation. NOT with a full “committee” listening and chiming in.
My job as a writer – and my promise to any client – is summed up in my tagline: “Sound like yourself – only BETTER!” So the executive needs to sound like him- or herself … not like a group of different voices, personalities and talking points.
Often I “nudge” my clients to go a bit beyond their comfort zones … encouraging them to be more personal with their audiences. I have NEVER gone wrong by coaxing clients to be more personal. If they’re a bit skeptical at first but allow me to help them share authentic feelings and real anecdotes from their lives … they ALWAYS come back after the successful result and thank me for helping them make a stronger human “connection” with the audience.
I once got a pharmaceutical President to share her memories of a childhood fairy tale … which underscored her vision for the “magical” success she believed was possible for her sales force. I got the CEO of a giant chemical company to sit center stage in a wing chair at the end of an evening session, reading a custom-written “bedtime story” about the company’s future — as his executive leaders sipped milk and munched on freshly baked cookies.
But even in more expected and typical presentations, I’ve learned to write CONVERSATIONALLY … sounding like the actual “voice” of my client (only better!) … and being sure to write the way we speak to each other in natural conversation – instead of sounding like a sales brochure.
I’ll make you this promise:
If you’re writing for yourself or someone else to be HEARD instead of silently read …
If you keep my suggestions in mind – Emphasis Words, natural style, etc. – you WILL be more successful than if you try to write precisely as your 8th grade English teacher taught you to.
Bottom line, here are some of my speechwriter’s “secrets” that help me in writing speeches and other forms of writing, too —
– Start by determining your North Star,
your overall take-away message
– Think about the FLOW of your content BEFORE you write
– Get the audience’s attention with VALUE right away
– Take maximum advantage of the Internet
– Capture the natural “voice” of the person you’re writing for
– CAPITALIZE Emphasis Words for text that will be spoken
– Take time to critique your own writing
– Realize that it takes longer to write shorter
– Dare to be personal and human, sounding like yourself –
or help the person you’re writing for sound (for real) like themselves.
Use those techniques and I absolutely know: you WILL be more successful.
It’s taken me decades to learn and develop my craft as a professional writer. I’m grateful for the time YOU’VE spent, reading and considering my suggestions.
Hopefully you or someone you care about will experience praise and/or applause as a result if these Speechwriting “secrets.” (Or maybe you’ll have ME write it for you!)
1 Source: Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer: “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use,” in the ACM Transactions on the Web, vol. 2, no. 1 (February 2008), article #5.
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