Category Archives: Speechwriting

Photo of an auditorium, with a seat labeled Reserved For You

Being there: Why a seat in the audience can make you a better speechwriter

Sometimes, there’s just no fighting geography. And the truth is, there’s no faster or better feedback on how a speech you wrote goes over than to be in the audience when it does.

That’s often hard, especially if the speech is in another city, or if your speechwriting is a freelance gig outside of your day job. But if you can show up, even if it’s only to a handful of speeches, you’ll have a far better handle on the chemistry between your text, your speaker and their audience. Continue reading

"Nice speech. Did you write it?"

"Great speech! Did you write it?" How to answer the QUESTION OF DOOM

Being in the audience when a speaker delivers a speech you’ve written is great, for all kinds of reasons. But it does hold one big danger: being asked, “Did you write it?”

See if you can spot where this conversation at a banquet table after a luncheon keynote went south:

“So what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a speechwriter.”

“Oh! Did you write this speech?”

“This? This speech? The one you just heard? Ha, ha, excellent question. My gosh, my throat’s dry. I’m just going to get some water, and then sit down at a different table on the far side of the room.”

We love to get credit for the work we’ve done. (Maybe not when a speech bombs. Success has a hundred proud parents, but failure is an orphan.) But when we’re writing for someone else, claiming authorship is complicated at best, and fraught with moral and financial peril at worst. Continue reading

You risk swapping being a storyteller for being a stock ticker.

Putting the ‘numb’ in ‘numbers’: Don’t let statistics sap your speech’s emotional punch

I recently saw a speech by someone clearly accustomed to the public spotlight and comfortable on the stage. She had an important message to deliver about a profound social injustice. She spoke with authority and confidence.

And she spent nearly all twenty minutes of her speech reciting statistics.

Good, compelling statistics: stark, often startling, sometimes infuriating. But two hours after her speech, I’d have been hard-pressed to tell you any of them.

Now, there was an interview-style Q&A after the speech where she was a lot more engaging. But by that point, she’d already lost a big chunk of the audience.

When it comes to statistics in speeches, less really is more. One or two telling statistics to buttress an argument or illustrate a point can be powerful. Once your trickle of stats swells to a flood, though, your audience can easily get overwhelmed and emotionally detached. And you risk swapping being a storyteller for being a stock ticker. Continue reading

The right formatting for a speech is whatever works for whoever's giving it. (Even if they want Comic Sans.)

A guide to formatting speaking notes

You’ve written the speech, and it has everything: moving anecdotes, a few telling facts, a gripping narrative, a rousing call to action and a conclusion that will have your speaker’s audience on their feet. (Clapping, not leaving. Important distinction there.) Best of all, it’s the final draft, all approved and ready to send to the client.

Time to call it a day?

Maybe not. Before you shut down Word (or whatever hipster Markdown-based text editor you kids are using these days), your speaker may want you to format the speech for delivery. And depending on who you’re writing for, that may involve some significant time.

Unlike, say, screenwriting, there’s no standard for formatting speaking notes; just about everything depends on the preferences and needs of whoever will be delivering it. But there are a few conventions and good practices to keep in mind — things that will make your speech look crisp and professional, but more important, will help ensure if gets the best possible delivery. Continue reading

Wake up your audience by turning up the contrast

Wake up your audience by turning up the contrast

Even the most interesting topic can be rendered inert by the simple application of a dull speech. Audiences are human, and they crave a little drama along with their intellectual content.

Nobody knows drama better than Nancy Duarte, famous for her concept of the STAR (Something They’ll Always Remember) moment (remember Al Gore on that scissor lift in front of a climate graph in An Inconvenient Truth?). And in a post a few days ago on LinkedIn, she recommended using contrast to heighten the drama of a presentation.

Although her post touches on writing, she mainly focuses on delivery (varying your tone and volume, moving around on the stage) and slide design (high-contrast simple text slides, alternated with charts or images). Let’s shift the focus to the text of a speech — and talk about a few ways speechwriters can do our part to create contrasts, too. Continue reading

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!

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