The power of speechwriting

Public speaker statues in Brisbane, Australia

Oh, if these statues could talk! Statues of Steele Rudd, Emma Miller and Sir Charles Lilley, at Speakers’ Corner, King George Square, Brisbane, Australia. Image courtesy of Figaro at Wikimedia Commons.

Public speaking is a definite art when it’s done right. It all starts with good writing.

We speak in public for many reasons. Police officers or government officials give statements to reassure the public and calm their fears. Famous people or school officials provide words of inspiration at graduation ceremonies. Best men or other important people toast a newly married couple at wedding receptions. Good friends or relatives speak at eulogies for departed friends, and business people give presentations to an audience of their peers or to students.

In my professional and personal lives, I’ve written some speeches and given others. I’ve also listened to many speeches. The most memorable speakers, I’ve found, use several common elements:

1) Brevity — Be concise and stick to the main points. Some speeches go on…and on…and on…until I’m tempted to sprint to the nearest store and buy the speaker a GPS.

2) Humor — Be funny when possible. Cleverness with words through puns, funny stories, etc. helps to make your audience laugh. Getting your audience to laugh at least once is good — it wakes people up and focuses their attention. If they’re yanking out their smartphones and checking e-mails or Facebook, you’ve lost them.

3) Adaptation — Tailor the speech to fit the audience’s needs, educational level and the occasion.

The three most memorable speeches I ever heard involved a graduation ceremony, a National Geographic lecture in DC and a British wedding. At the graduation ceremony, the speaker made us laugh several times with his observations about life after school and the things we would do and not do.

The National Geographic lecturer did a lecture about Colorado, accompanied by a movie. At one point, the camera showed the speaker’s point of view as he climbed up a series of steps to a lookout point. During the descent, the speaker pretended to fall and the camera spun rapidly to show what he would have seen. After he arrived at the bottom of the steps, a woman came up and asked him, “Did you miss a step?” The speaker told us his answer to the concerned woman: “No, I think I managed to hit all of them!”

But the British wedding speaker was by far the most memorable, because he taught us “The Three Ups” rules for public speaking. (The great accent didn’t hurt, either.) Even though the wedding was over a decade ago, I still remember the rules:

1) Know when to stand up.

2) Know when to speak up.

3) Know when to shut up.

Now that’s what I call words to speak by. Have a good weekend, people.

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7 Comments

Filed under Writing

7 responses to “The power of speechwriting

  1. I think a greatly written speech can fail to grab an audience’s attention if the speaker cannot present it perfectly. I’ve never given any public speech even at any little blogger meet-ups and seminars I’ve joined. I don’t even think I will be able to.

  2. I just recently watched the ‘You’re Not Special’ speech, given to this year’s graduating class at Wellesley High School. It fits your three points pretty well (a bit long, but funny and tailored to the audience, so ultimately the length wasn’t so bad). You should definitely check it out if you haven’t already.

    • Actually, it was hearing about the “You’re Not Special” speech that inspired this post. I read the text of it, since it was getting so much press attention. It made me think about what really constitutes a memorable speech and how writing plays a big part in that.

  3. What do you think about Toastmasters International?

    • I don’t have personal experience with Toastmasters International yet, but I’d like to join one day. They seem to be a marvelous organization and have a well-earned reputation for helping people to become better leaders and public speakers.

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