Tag Archives: speeches

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?

One more reason to love Portland: 27 years of speech recordings discovered at PSU

The invaluable Ian Griffin reports on a fantastic discovery by a Portland State University archivist:

a box of reel-to-reel recordings of campus speeches by figures such as LSD advocate Timothy Leary, Robert F. Kennedy speaking a few short weeks before his assassination, Nobel prize-winner Linus Pauling speaking on the effects of radioactive fallout a few months before the Cuban Missile crisis, and poet Allan Ginsberg.

And PSU has obligingly digitized them and posted them online. (I resent this just a little bit, because it costs me an excuse to go to Portland. Breakfast at Tasty n Sons, a day of listening to great speeches and an evening at Powell’s, anyone..?)

As exciting as it can be to read a great speech, they’re intended to be heard — making this find a thrilling one for speechwriters.

Filed under: Speeches Tagged: archives, ian griffin, library, portland state university

Resolution: quote more women

So often, when I’m reaching for a stirring quotation, I wind up with something a man said. (Or, in the case of Gandhi, didn’t say.) You may find the same thing.

If so, and you’d like to redress that imbalance a little, bookmark The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women’s Speeches. It’s a collection of speeches by prominent women, from Sojourner Truth to Ursula K. Le Guin, and from Aung Sun Suu Kyi to Lady Gaga. There are 78 so far, with more added regularly.

Filed under: Speechwriting Tagged: list, quotations, speeches, women

Social Speech Podcast, Episode 10: Holly Ross

This episode features Holly Ross from NTEN, the Nonprofit Technology Network. She’s a great speaker in her own right – and every year, NTEN hosts the Nonprofit Technology Conference. It’s a huge gathering (but remarkably relaxed and collegial), and we talk about what it takes to connect that many people online at a conference – and how speakers can make the most of a connected audience.

Some links and resources:


Social Speech Podcast, Episode 9: JD Lasica

When you want solid advice on social media, backed up by years of experience with both non-profits and businesses, you go to JD Lasica.

And so did I, for a half-hour conversation that touched on everything from why letting your audience see your slides in advance may not be a bad idea, to how speaking and community-building go hand-in-hand.

Listen to JD, then explore these links for some terrific resources:

When you should stay the hell away from the podium

Funny: in February, I led off a presentation at the Ragan Speechwriter’s Conference with the story of how Bob Rae was booed loudly (and embarrassingly) at the Skydome when he appeared to congratulate the Blue Jays on winning the World Series.

Now the same thing has happened to Dick Cheney.

So, for both Dick and Bob, and the folks who book them, here are the salient points from that presentation [PDF]: seven reasons to give a speech, and seven reasons not to.

Ragan Speechwriter’s Conference, day 2: Jeffrey Denny wants to save you from bad commencement speeches

I remember the speech at my university graduation only dimly. Something about barely being able to stay awake through it… and wishing the damn thing would end.

That was nearly 20 years ago, and according to Fannie Mae speechwriter Jeffrey Denny – who took us on a ride through the worst and best of commencement speaking in 2005 – they haven’t improved a bit since.

Neither have the audiences. The students would rather be partying with their friends and saying tear-filled goodbyes than listening to your speaker. And this “whatever” generation is skeptical and cynical; they’ve already seen and heard it all. Add in the rotten acoustics typical of most graduation venues, and you have all the makings of a bomb.

Denny doled out mock awards to some of the past year’s most egregious examples.

  • The most memorable address for the wrong reasons award, for instance, went to the Pepsi executive whose speech compared the five continents to the five fingers on your hand. Guess which finger represented North America? Pepsi issued a formal apology.
  • The most unabashed use of a cliche: A former CIA director started off “Life is filled with challenges and opportunities” and concluded “May the challenges ahead always be opportunities.”

It wasn’t all bad, though. Denny mentioned Carly Fiorina, who had been the CEO of Hewlett-Packard when the commencement invitation landed on her desk and was out of a job by the time the day of the speech rolled around. Her comment (winning the “silk purse from a sow’s ear” award): “If there are any recruiters here, I’ll be free around 11.” (See more here.)

The best opening hook award went to MTV founder Dwight Tierney: “So. A couple of things. Wednesday is visitors’ day at Abu Dhabi prison. The Chinese prefer red wine. And Rudy Giuliani doesn’t know who Green Day is. Bear with me, because I have a point.”

And the best speech of all, Denny suggested, was Steve Jobs’ now-legendary address at Stanford. He tied three memorable stories into a compelling case for following your heart. (You can find the full text of Steve Jobs’ speech at Stanford’s site.)

That address typified the very best in the year’s commencement speeches. They were modest, personal and self-deprecating. They recognized that graduates already had a lot of knowledge and insight, and instead of trying to set out a philosophical worldview, they told stories and offered the lessons the speaker had learned. From his survey, Denny distilled several pieces of advice. Here are a few:

  • “First, do no harm.” You will get more publicity from a bad speech than a good speech.
  • Write something your own kids would enjoy.
  • Keep it short, funny and insightful. And don’t work your jokes too hard.

Want to check out more commencement speeches? Brace yourself… then head to C-Span for a few dozen of them.