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Writing a Good Speech

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When we think of speeches and rhetoric, these very ideas conjure up images of desks strewn with paper, random notes having been jotted down on an equally random Post-it note, and highlighted passages in drafts that are nowhere near ready. But then we remember that those invariably nervous, tense and rough moments of creative combustion are followed by “the spark”: the tear rolling down someone’s cheek, the smile caused and the deeper appreciation kindled in a sceptic. All of that through the power of the word.

I remember one of the primary debates during the 2008 election, when it had come down to then-Senators Obama and Clinton. One exchange particularly remained in my head: Hillary complained that Barack gave a nice speech, but that words alone didn’t matter. The senator from Illinois countered that, yes, words do matter – and a great deal at that. There are so many examples from thousands of years of history.

Whether the debates in the Roman Senate, Kennedy’s inaugural address, Reagan’s speech after the Challenger disaster or President Bush’s words comforting a stricken nation after the outrage of September 11: Words do matter. They provide hope, optimism, cause for reflection and energy for tasks ahead – but they can also indict, clarify injustices and shine the light on a cause whose time has finally arrived. That’s why I like public speaking.

Many years ago, when I was preparing my first speech for a public audience, no such high-minded discourse was on my mind – well almost. The occasions when I have had the pleasure of delivering a speech have been varied – in front of audiences big and small, across social strata and income disparities. Like anyone who has been involved with crafting a speech, I have had the moment when I’ve been at a loss or when coming across the perfect phrase “made” my speech.Writing a speech is by no means for the faint-hearted, the shy or the meek. Speeches are all about clarity, structure and seizing the moment.

More than that, however, there is one overriding lesson that I have taken on board when thinking back to the speeches I have written and it’s this: Know your audience. It’s vital to establish a real bond with them, to press their emotional buttons and think about the value to them. No one else matters when it comes to crafting your speech. No one.

Talking about crafting a speech: You can only write a good speech if you have material to work with – in other words, if your substance isn’t convincing (and you aren’t convinced, either), then you can use all the best imagery in the world and it won’t matter. Eloquence isn’t just about words, it’s about content, clear thought and persuasiveness. To be a good speaker, you must be a good thinker, a bit of a practical joker and a bit of a seducer.

When people ask me about the best speech I have given, I don’t cite the speeches that I gave in front of hundreds of people. Instead, I refer them to a presentation I gave at an Indian engineering college on the issue of trademark and patent law. For anyone not familiar with these areas, they can appear very complicated. Why was that speech my best? Well, because I got to teach others about their rights under patent law, about the history of intellectual property and what they could do in concrete terms. And this is the final lesson here: Aim higher, elevate the discourse and seek out high quality – not just in what you write, but how you say it. Chances are when you think of your audience, you will write a better speech.

It all boils down to these three principles:

  • Know your audience
  • Deliver quality content
  • Aim to educate

Writing and delivering a speech may be daunting at first, but its rewards make up for all the uncertainties of the speechwriting process. Carpe diem!

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  • Well said. I also believe it’s critical to figure out where the hot buttons lie in your audience. With any group, you need to consider the audience demographics, their biases, possible assumptions, the level of their knowledge, past experience and personal style. Will they want to hear details or the big picture? End results or people involved? Finally, what kinds of stories and examples will get under their skin and cause them to act? Do what you can to find out about your audience so the purpose of your speech will be a success.