Stand and deliver: The art of speech writing

Word count: 725 words

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

While writing always involves putting words on paper, speech writing requires a few rather specialized strategies. Read on to learn more…

I lead workshops and give speeches regularly but haven’t made them a core part of my business because I have three school-age children. (But, hey, my triplets graduate in June!) I enjoy presenting and have never suffered from the kind of public speaking anxiety that cripples many others. Perhaps it was my background in high school debating that saved me. Anyway, a few months ago, subscriber Lawrence emailed to ask for advice on how to prepare and present speeches, so here goes:

Just as you should never start writing until you know exactly how many words are required, you can’t possibly plan a speech or a presentation until you know the length of time you have. If it’s 20 minutes or less, be aware that the typical human speaks at somewhere between 125 and 150 words per minute and plan accordingly.

(If you’re given MORE than 20 minutes, recognize that most audiences will likely be bored no matter how brilliant and scintillating you are. Long speeches MUST be broken up with activities or Q&A sessions. The days when an audience of farmers could listen to Abe Lincoln for three hours are long gone!)

To begin your speech, start with a mindmap and look for stories, anecdotes and examples that address or illustrate the topic you’ve been given. These should form the core of what you deliver. Why? Because (a) you won’t have to write them out word for word as you’ll remember them more or less automatically, and (b) audiences adore being entertained by stories. Try to avoid giving too many numbers or simply reciting facts. Your audience won’t remember that stuff anyway!

When you’ve finished your mindmap, review it to see if you can identify three points (or better, stories) you can speak about. To my mind, just about every speech should focus on no more and no fewer than three points/stories. Here is how your speech might look depending on its length:

LENGTH     Intro       Point 1        Point 2      Point 3      Conclusion 
5 mins          1 min          1 min             1 min.          1 min           1 min
10 mins        1 min          2.5 min         2.5 min       3 min           1 min
15 mins        1.5 min       4 min            4 min           4 min           1.5 min
20 mins        2 min          5 min            5 min          5 min           3 min

If you’re speaking for more than 20 minutes, some of the timing may become less predictable. For long presentations, I suggest you over-prepare and identify certain segments (or activities) that can be jettisoned if time runs short.

Try to avoid writing your entire speech word for word. But do write the intro and conclusion to get it perfect. Use simple, concrete words and strong imagery.

If PowerPoint is part of your presentation, please promise me you’ll never prepare slides filled with words. Instead, look for photos to illustrate your points. In that way, the images will ENHANCE your speech rather than detract from it. (There are plenty of free or inexpensive photo sources such as Flickr, istock photo or fotolia.) Best of all, if you practice thoroughly, you may be able to deliver your presentation without a single note –- the images will remind you of what to say next.

Speaking of practice, be sure to do enough of it. I took a terrific workshop last fall (thanks Jeremy and Jennifer!) where I heard the expression “Professionals practice in private; amateurs practice in public.” This is so true. It can be hard to force yourself to practice, however, so to make your goal more measurable, I suggest you tape yourself with a video camera.

Furthermore, try practicing in front of a real audience. If you’re going to be speaking to a large audience, try it on a smaller one, first. (Family and friends are better than nothing but see if you can make it slightly more realistic than that. Does your office have a Toastmaster’s club, for example?)

When speaking make sure you are smiling, breathing properly and looking your audience in the EYES. If it’s a large group of people, your eyes should flit over each quarter (or eighth) of the room in relatively quick succession. If you’re a newbie for whom that’s just too much, look just over the tops of everyone’s heads and it will appear as though you are looking them in the eye.

Finally, as with any type of writing, your speech will improve with practice. So, practice.