One of the greatest challenges that I faced in public speaking was mastering the art of speech writing. Speech writing has a style all its own that I had to learn by trial and error. There were a plethora of style books to guide me in writing for magazines, but nary a one on speech writing. Sure there were and are books on speech writing, but I wouldn’t call them “style books”. Perhaps, one of these days, I will write and publish a speech writing style book as an e-Book. For now, here are the 5 keys to writing a great speech. These are the corner stones on which every award winning presentation is built.
One of the greatest challenges for me was to overcome my love affair with long, convoluted sentences. According to Philip Yaffee, a mathematician, speech writer, and journalist, when writing a speech the length of an average sentence should be between 15 and 18 words. Some sentence can be longer, such as my last sentence. The majority should average 15 to 18 words in length. I haven’t counted the words in each sentence in this post, but I think they average 15 to 18 words. Shorter sentences makes it easier for the audience to understand and retain information presented to them orally.
Practice the K.I.S.S. Principle.
This was another of my foibles in speech writing. It was even a problem for me in my technical writing at first. I had the tendency to assume too much knowledge on the part of my audience. I had a tendency to write and talk over their heads. Then, one day, a very wise editor wrote K.I.S.S. in huge letters diagonally across the first page of a manuscript that I had sent him. At the bottom of the page, he Keep It Simple Stupid. He very quickly explained that he wasn’t calling me stupid but to write my articles in such a way that assumed no knowledge on the part of my readers. Today, one of the most popular book series are written on that very principle, The For Dummies series. The bottom line is, that as writers or speakers, we must present our material in such a way that our audience can understand and use it.
Use Simple Words.
Use the vocabulary of the masses. As public speakers, as writers, we pride ourselves on our vast vocabularies. We love to speak and write in a declamatory style. OK, let’s take a break here. Most of you probably knew what the word “declamatory” meant, but, admit it, didn’t it make me sound really pretentious? Never, ever use a 5 dollar word when a 25 cent word will do the same job. As writers, as speakers, we are not, or we at least should not be, out to impress our audience with how many impressive words we know. As writers, as public speakers, our objective should be to convey useful information in a way that our audience can understand and use. Keep those big words in reserve for the next time you play Scrabble. Use them on the Scrabble Board and rack up those extra 50 bonus points for putting down those seven letter words.
Just the Facts.
If you were a fan of the old TV “Dragnet” series, you probably recall Sergeant Joe Friday saying at least once on every program, “Just the facts, Ma’am. Just the facts.” That’s a good mantra for the speech writer to utter over and over as he or she writes his or speeches. Keep your speeches terse, free of fluff. People come to presentations to get answers to to a problem they are facing or to get information on ways they can earn more money, improve their production, find more clients, or some other such reason. They don’t come to most presentations to hear you tell stories that serve no meaningful purpose for them.
Speak to keep your audience actively involved.
No matter what your speech objectives are, you need to keep your audiences actively engaged with you and your speech if you are to meet those objectives. To keep an audience actively engaged, you need to use a lot of verbs in your presentation. Speak in the active voice. Begin as many of your sentences with an action word whenever possible. This principle was driven home again for me when I started writing how-to articles for Demand Studios. Their guidelines required that every step started with an action. Using action words not only keeps your audiences actively engaged, they make it easy to cut out the fluff because the active voice is a terse voice.
There you have it folks, the 5 pillars of a great speech. The next time you have a speech to write for a Toastmasters Club project, or for an outside presentation, put these 5 principles to the test. You will be amazed at the results you get.