Author Archives: Rob Cottingham

About Rob Cottingham

Political speechwriter for national leaders, provincial premiers and Vancouver mayors. Cartoonist behind Noise to Signal. Online engagement strategist since the days of dial-up modems. F2F humorist ("stand-up comic" for you old farts).

A prairie dog paying very close attention indeed

May I have your attention, please

In an ideal world, you’d have the audience in the palm of your hand from “CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY” to “Thank you; you’ve been lovely; tip your servers.”

But the world of public speaking isn’t ideal. Audiences have a limitless supply of distractions to choose from: that strange noise the fan is making, the fact that their lunch isn’t sitting too well, and of course their mobile device of choice.

And unless both the speech and the speaker are the most riveting thing since… well, this,… their attention is going to wander. Not far, if the speech is decent and relevant, but it’ll wander. And as a speechwriter, you need a tool to bring that attention back when it really counts. 

That’s why I’m a fan of attention-focusing phrases: the signals to your audience to prick up their ears, because the very next thing will be important.

These are phrases like:

  • “But here’s the thing…”
  • “It all comes down to this…”
  • “And you know what?”

(The clichéd, over-used phrases “At the end of the day” and “In the final analysis” also used to serve this function. But they’re so worn out that they often just sound like verbiage.)

The trick to using phrases like these is that the next thing you say needs to be worthy of the audience’s full attention: clear, memorable, pithy and profound (at least, profound in the context of the speech). There’s no time for prologue or meandering; you’ve promised significance, and you have to deliver.

And speaking of delivering, speech delivery is much more important than any one phrase. When a speaker slows down, pauses, and changes the pitch and volume of their voice, they command attention almost irresistibly.

Use this sparingly: a few times in a speech is plenty. (Little-known fact: the original title of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” was “The Boy Who Said ‘But Here’s The Thing’ All The Time.”)

You’ll see these techniques in any number of TED talks. The next time you’re watching one, keep and eye (and ear) out for the moment the speaker signals they want your attention by using a focusing phrase and/or by sharply changing their delivery. The next thing they say will almost always be the key point of their presentation.

Got a favourite attention-focusing phrase? Here’s the thing: I’d like you to share it in the comments.

Adapted from my answer on Quora.


A free webinar on how speechwriters can engage audiences

You won’t find anyone much more experienced at speechwriting than Colin Moorhouse, and on September 10, he’s sharing some of his immense store of speechwriting wisdom in a free webinar.

Better yet, he’s tackling one of the most fundamental (yet most-often-forgotten) questions in the field: what does it really mean to engage your audience?

  • Discover why, if speeches don’t engage an audience at some fundamental level, there is no point in giving the speech at all.
  • Learn the six specific elements that make your speech engaging.  They include matters of stage presence, the nature of the event, the language of the speech, and the critical importance of humor and story telling.
  • Discover the questions you should ask the minute you hear the words “We Need A Speech”.
  • Learn other key elements of the speech writing genre – such as finding your speaker’s voice, nailing down messaging, how much research is necessary, and the matter of rehearsing your client.

Book your space here. And let me know how it goes!

I believe crash reports should be worth reading (13)

Crash report: At 02:32 hours, an unidentified object was identified in low Earth orbit and tracked by NORAD. At 02:58, the object broke orbit and entered the atmosphere. Consistent with the Janus Protocol, a squadron of three pursuit aircraft (US and Russian) were scrambled to intercept. Radio and radar contact were lost at 03:11, and JCS authorized Status Verdant. The Epsilon Device was deployed, successfully disabling the target. A recovery team is now en route to the crash site and no resistance is expec

At 02:32 hours, an unidentified object was identified in low Earth orbit and tracked by NORAD. At 02:58, the object broke orbit and entered the atmosphere. Consistent with the Janus Protocol, a squadron of three pursuit aircraft (US and Russian) were scrambled to intercept. Radio and radar contact were lost at 03:11, and JCS authorized Status Verdant. The Epsilon Device was deployed, successfully disabling the target. A recovery team is now en route to the crash site and no resistance is expec—

Bottle of poison

Why the conventional wisdom will kill your speech dead (and why it can still help)

Tell your friends and family you’re about to write your first speech, and you’ll get a lot of well-intentioned, well-worn advice.

“Start with a joke.”
“Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell them what you’ve said.”
“If you can’t convince them with facts, then baffle them with B.S.”
And so on. (That doesn’t end after a few decades of speechwriting experience, either. Trust me on that.)

Every one of those pieces of advice can, if followed slavishly, kill your speech dead. Continue reading

Photo of a whale sculpture

Save the beached whales! (Or, Your job isn’t done when the speech is)

Speechwriter and speechwriting trainer par excellence Colin Moorhouse writes about Beached Whale Syndrome: comparing the romantic complaint about men who roll over and fall asleep immediately after an amorous encounter (or, not to put it too delicately, their half of an amorous encounter) to clients who deliver the speech you wrote for them and then never let you know how it went.

In each case, both parties are the poorer for it. Colin expresses the speechwriter’s frustration eloquently; I’d like to chime in with a call for clients to see what they’re missing.

A conversation after the speech can do a whole lot more than let a speechwriter bask in the afterglow. It can:

  • Identify strengths in the speech. What new jokes and anecdotes really took off? What turn of phrase got people’s attention? Which applause lines landed well?
  • Identify weaknesses in the speech. What passages didn’t feel natural? What jokes fell flat? Where did we lose the audience? What sections could you have done without?
  • Flag insights for the next time. Did something in the text spark a new idea, or remind the speaker of a great story? Did the speaker have an idea for a better way of phrasing something?
  • Review the audience’s response. Not just where they applauded and where they checked email, but which lines were tweeted, and what ideas they quoted back to the speaker afterward.
  • Hone the speaker’s core story. There’s nothing as important a post-speech conversation can do as giving the speaker the chance to reflect on the core story they’re telling, and sharpen it—or flag something they’d like to try the next time.

Booking the time for a post-speech debriefing is difficult. A busy speaker is usually on to the next thing. So you’ll need to be persistent. Book the meeting before the speech happens, for as soon as possible after the event. Build it explicitly into your workbacks and schedules. Lobby hard, comparing it to the way a professional athlete or performer continually reviews their performance.

This is how speakers and speeches and speechwriters all get better at what they do. Save the beached whales from themselves, and you’ll be doing yourself and your audiences a favour, too.


How long does it take to write a speech? (A. It depends.)

How long will that speech take to write?

A questioner on Quora asked a while ago how long it takes to write a speech, and what factors affect it. Here’s my answer:

I’ve smashed out seven-minute speeches during an election campaign while the plane was landing for statements the speaker gave as soon as they descended the stairs for the aircraft. And I’ve worked on a few speeches off and on over several weeks in advance of major events.

Here are some of the factors involved:

Time available: Sometimes you just have to do what you can before a painfully tight deadline, and you adjust your ambitions accordingly. Yes, you’d like to craft rhetoric that will endure through the ages, the kind of speech that schoolchildren will recite a hundred years from now — but meanwhile, the new parkade opens in half an hour, and that ribbon ain’t gonna cut itself.

Budget available: How much of my time the client can pay for can be a big limiting factor. (That said, I’ll always put enough time in that I’m confident in the speech I’m handing over.)

Research: How much information is readily available (and easily assimilated), and how much will I have to dig up myself? Do they have examples and anecdotes they’re comfortable with (and that have been fact-checked and confirmed)?

Clarity, as Jimmy says below. Does the client know the gist of what they want to say, and just needs someone to flesh it out and put it into more memorable, engaging words? Or are we going to need to talk that through? Often I find clients think they know what they want to say, but the moment you try to give it some structure and substance, that illusion fades away.

Related to clarity: consistency. Whether they come from a client changing their mind about the speech’s direction, or a situation and environment that are shifting constantly, changes are going to require more time… sometimes going right back to first principles.

Revisions are probably obvious. I rarely need more than two rounds; if I do, it’s a sign that either I’ve screwed up or the client has changed their mind.

Humour. If you want a lot of jokes, it’s going to take longer (unless the inspiration fairy decides to pay me a visit, and the laughs start flowing naturally).

Familiarity. If I know a client and their area well, then things can go much more quickly. The first time I write about a particular subject, there’s going to be some added time while I look up terminology and vernacular, and find examples and touchstones that this audience will relate to.

Typically, though, I can finish the first draft of a 20-30-minute speech in a few days, provided I get clear direction and have an agreed-on narrative arc. (Speechwriters, note that the “get” in “get clear direction” is an active verb. You have to ask for it, sometimes persistently, often asking the same question in different ways.)

How about you? What’s typical for you? And what’s the fastest you’ve ever pounded out a speech?

(Illustration of speaking notes that start "In conclusion..."

The legend of Backward Speechwriter

So many speeches don’t (…dammit…)

Whenever I find myself repeatedly writing, deleting and re-writing the first lines of s (…augh…)

The Oxford English Dictionary defin (hell, no.)

Ever find yourself staring at a blank screen, stymied at how to start a speech?

With “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” already taken, perfect beginnings can be awfully hard to find.

But maybe that’s because the beginning of the speech is that last place you should start. As far as the craft of writing is concerned, a powerful speech starts at the end—for the same reason that you (usually) don’t start a journey without some idea of your destination.

So think of your audience, and picture them at the end of the speech. What do you want them to do because of it? Do you want them to buy a product or service, sign a petition, donate money, storm the Bastille, vote for one candidate, vote against another, stop using petroleum products, write their legislator, join an organization, have coffee with a neighbour: what?

That’s your call to action. Write it down in one sentence, and label it sentence 1.

For them to take that action, something has to have changed in the way they see the world and their place in it. What’s that change in belief, in one sentence? Write it down as sentence 2.

One last question: what is your audience’s current belief—the one you’re changing? Write it down as sentence 3.

Your speech has to move your audience from believing sentence 3, to believing sentence 2, so they’ll do sentence 1.

Which means the beginning of your speech needs to launch them on that journey. What do they need to push them on their way? Answer that question, and you’re on your way to knowing how to begin the speech.