How To Write a Speech

First, let me say how relieved your future audience would be if they knew you were taking the time to write your speech.  Too often, whether through laziness or fearful procrastination, people (this writer included) decide to "wing it."  No matter how attracted you are to the prospect of delivering a memorable, rousing speech without having prepared, the vast majority of people need preparation in order to deliver such a speech.  And for the extreme minority who can "wing it" gracefully, a little preparation never hurt, either.  Here are some tips on how to write a speech.

  1. Think about your audience.  What will they be expecting?  Does it serve you in any way to defy their expectations occasionally?  Some would say that the typical (though not universal) human response to surprise is ultimately resentment.  That's debatable, but this much is true: the better you know an audience, the more comfortably you can toss in the untraditional surprise.

    But should you?  That's a separate question!  A speech at a funeral isn't the best time to regale your friends with a colorful account of your latest exploits at the office party.  Always devote consideration to what your audience will expect and, when in any doubt as to how a surprising remark will be received, adhere to what your audience expects as you write your speech.

  2. This brings up the use of humor.  Every speech writer confronts the temptation to inject humor into the speech.  Often a very convenient icebreaker, it can warm up a crowd and make them more receptive to your ideas.  But if used inappropriately, humor can undermine your credibility and even offend your audience.  Never use abrasive humor in a speech.

    Consider your familiarity.  You share different kinds of humor with a complete stranger than you do with a close friend.  The same is true, only amplified, when writing a speech.

  3. What is the purpose of your speech?  What are you trying to achieve?  If the purpose is to convince, as in a political campaign, then writing your speech will be similar to writing a persuasive essay.  But persuasion is not the goal when writing a laudatory speech for someone's retirement party.
  4. So how should a speech be structured?  There's no reason that your speech can't follow the same basic structure as an essay.
    • Introduction.  Establish your theme or argument, but do so artfully.  To paraphrase Dickinson, unveil the central message of your speech, but unveil it slant.  No need to hammer an audience over the head with it.  That's why we have conclusions!  To be overly emphatic at the beginning of your speech would be anticlimactic, like telling the punch line of a joke prematurely.
    • Body.  Now that you've established the direction of your speech, build the supporting points in order of increasing power - the logical progression of any speech.  You want your final point to resonate, not to whisper.  This isn't about volume, but rather about what will be most compelling to an audience.
    • Conclusion.  Here's where you present your central message in full clarity.  Leave no doubt as to that message or argument.

    You are granted a little more flexibility of structure in a speech than what you enjoy when writing an essay.  But if the order is not coming readily to mind, use the basic structure of an essay to guide you...

  5. a point.  Whether written or spoken, you must always assume that your words have an audience.  Here's where a speech differs most from an essay: you are performing it live.  When someone reads an essay you have written, you can employ a voice that isn't authentically your own.  You can use language that you couldn't comfortably or convincingly say out loud.  It takes a skilled reader to detect consistent, inauthentic voice, but spoken words that cause you discomfort can stick out like sore thumbs to anybody in your audience.  When writing a speech, remember that you must be authentic in order to gain credibility as a speaker.  I might have written this article like a Southern Belle circa 1864 and, if I changed my name and added the proper date, no one would have been the wiser.  But no audience would believe me if I stood before them with a parasol and my most honeyed drawl (that's what I keep telling myself, anyway). 
  6. Practice extensively.  Everything I just said about authenticity can be softened somewhat through practice.  The more you practice a speech, the better you can get away with using words, phrases and ideas that may not be as familiar to you.  Rehearse your speech into the ground.
  7. Remember revision.  Practicing the speech is also the biggest step in your revision process.  If a phrase gives you consistent trouble, then think of another way to deliver that specific message.  Otherwise, revise in the same fashion as you would for an essay - with attention to grammar, relevance and logical flow.

Practice until your delivery is polished, but remember to be yourself when writing a speech.  People are better judges of authenticity than some public speakers would like to believe.  Don't be nervous!  By writing a speech, you are preparing yourself for delivery; the more you prepare, the less your anxiety is justifiable.


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