Speechwriting Tips by Dawn Kofie

Speechwriting tips to help make sure you don’t send your audience to sleep

Have you ever listened to a speech so rambling and tedious that you felt a tidal wave of relief when it finally ended? Yup, me too.

These speechwriting tips will make sure that you never subject anyone to anything that torturous.

They’ll help you engage, entertain and delight your audiences. (Instead of making them feel like you wasted precious minutes of their lives that they’ll never get back.)

Get as much background info as you can

Before you go near a notepad or keyboard, collect all the background info available about the event/meeting:

  • purpose
  • theme
  • format
  • how long you need to speak for, and if it’s negotiable
  • who’s going to be there
  • how many people are attending
  • what they’ll expect to hear
  • how much they know about your topic
  • how informal/formal it’s going to be
  • any no-go areas topics-wise
  • who else is speaking and what they’ll cover (so you don’t go over the same ground)
  • the venue (it’s helpful logistics-wise, and there might be interesting facts you can dig up about it that you could include in your speech)

Knowing all of this means you’ll have a good idea about:

  • what your audience’s needs are, so you can make sure your speech meets them
  • what level to pitch it at
  • how much, and what kind of, information to convey
  • what you can leave out
  • what to emphasize
  • the tone, style and wording to use
  • if you’ll need to explain specialist terms
  • if using humour’s going to be OK

Know the impact you want to have

Start by figuring out what you want your audience to know, think and feel after hearing your speech.

It could be that they:

  • know how grateful you are to be getting an award
  • think they did the right thing by voting in favour of your Very Important Issue
  • feel even happier that two people they care about have just got married

Whatever your aims are, write them at the top of the page before you start drafting to help keep you focused.

Think about how to draw your audience in

Starting your speech with a little-known fact, surprising statistic or intriguing story can pique your audience’s interest, and get them on your side.

A good example of this speechwriting tip in action is the opening to Dan Pink’s TED Talk  on motivation (one of the most popular TED Talks):

I need to make a confession at the outset here.

A little over 20 years ago, I did something that I regret. Something that I’m not particularly proud of. Something that, in many ways, I wish no one would ever know. But that here I feel kind of obliged to reveal.

In the late 1980s, in a moment of youthful indiscretion… I went to law school.

It’s short and snappy, and the gentle humour sets the tone. It shows that he doesn’t take himself, or his experiences, too seriously.

 Make sure it flows

If your speech’s structure is easy to follow, it’ll make it much more likely that your audience will keep listening to you.

Letting your audience know where you’re going means they don’t need to use more mental energy than they need to wondering what’s coming next. Or working out how everything you’re saying hangs together.

If it’s a longer speech, more than 5 minutes, then the old, ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them’ plan isn’t a bad one to follow.

And be kind to your audience by waving a little aural flag when you’re getting to the end. Something like, ‘the last thing I’d like to say is…’ or ‘before I go…’ is helpful. Then they’ll know when to breathe a sigh of relief. (Just kidding!)

Ditch the jargon and extra words

If you’re speaking to a group who are comfortable with the technical lingo in a particular field, fine.

If not, keep it conversational. Because your audience will zone out if you make a speech they can barely understand.

And get rid of anything that doesn’t add to your speech’s meaning. Your speaking time’s precious, so every single word has to earn its right to be included.

And finally (see what I did there?), always read your speech aloud

Read your speech aloud (or, even better, record yourself delivering it). You’ll be able to hear where the structure or transitions are a bit clunky, the sentences are too long or your punctuation’s a bit skew whiff.

Dawn is an ace wordsmith with a background in arts journalism – writing features and book, food, film, TV, theatre and stand-up comedy reviews. She has also written speeches for politicians, and is a skilled business writer who’s drafted and edited content for the Scottish Government’s website.

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