Reflections on the Process of Speechwriting – Including Speechwriting for Others

In addition to leading training sessions on Presentation Skills and Public Speaking, I also do some speech writing. People hire me to write a speech, or more, for them. Here is part of what I’ve learned through the process of writing for another speaker.

(Note: this is for the “everyday” speech giver – the CEO of a mid-level firm, for example. This speaker probably will not be using a teleprompter).)

Why does a person hire a speechwriter? Simple answer – they are too busy to write their own speeches. They are so busy doing their job that they don’t quite have time to write a speech in the midst of their busy schedule. And, of course, it is likely that speech writing is not one of the skills they have developed.

But, I have also been very lucky. Most of the people for whom I have written speeches have been good speakers, with great stories to tell. This makes it easy to be a collaborative partner with them.

I always write a full manuscript – pretty much every word the speaker will say. The number of words is determined by how long the speech needs to be. (My experience is that the average speaker speaks within a range of 140-160 words per minute).

Let’s start with the process. I discover what the topic/assignment is, then I research the audience and their needs. In this day of web sites and blogs, it is relatively easy to pull from these to learn about a group. I always try to include something that honors the group from their own sources (like their web site), and to look for an anecdote or two that I can incorporate that honors the audience members. This is critical.

But, for the speaker, I try to do the following:

#1 – First, I meet with the speaker, almost just to talk. I am looking to learn what matters most to the speaker.

#2 – Next, I try to draw some stories directly from the speaker. Though I am writing the speech, it helps to come as close as I can to writing in the voice of the person doing the speaking. In fact, I would say this is mandatory. It really helps to have the speaker tell me a story or two that I can incorporate. This gives me a feel for what is important to the speaker – what matters to them. Stories always reveal the heart and mind of the person telling the story.

#3 – Then I remember the little things – the visual hints – to help the person as they deliver the speech…  Like…

• I number the pages (and then, I encourage the speaker to re-number the pages, with a big hand-written sharpie-written number on each page). I promise you – once in their life, they will get their pages out of order, and wish they had numbered the pages.

• I strongly recommend that the final copy of the speech be printed out in big font – really big! The bigger the font, the less likely they will be to slump their shoulders and squint their eyes to see the words on the paper.

#4 – And, I use all sorts of visual hints in the text itself to help the speaker effectively use vocal variety and verbal punch. In other words, I help them guard against speaking in a monotone.

The goal is to vary rate, tone, speed. To verbally emphasize key words with what I call verbal punch.

I do this in a lot of ways. I put key words in bold. I make ample use of dashes – extra periods… I find ways to say, “emphasize this word, or phrase,” and to say, “Pause here – speed up here.”

In other words, I write the text of the speech thinking of speech delivery all the while I am writing.

Now, the content of the speech is another matter entirely, but I try to remember to use repetition – especially parallel, repetitive structure. (Read this earlier blog post). I always include one, or two, or three key phrases throughout the speech that need to be repeated with special emphasis – the use of verbal punch, which is so critical.

And I work hard on the first words of the speech.  Beginning well is beyond critical!

President Obama and his edits of a speech - speechwriting requires collaboration, and down-to-the-last-minute editing
President Obama and his edits of a speech – speechwriting requires collaboration, and down-to-the-last-minute editing

After the first draft is finished, I meet with the person and I read the speech out loud to him/her. We then refine, edit, change… then we meet again. This time, the speaker reads the speech to me. And, my preference is that they read it to me while standing, “practicing” their speech.

And I do a little coaching.

Then, it is up to the speaker to practice, practice, practice…

I suspect that I am leaving a lot out of this description. But, even from this short description, we are reminded that giving a good speech requires a lot of work before the hour the speech is delivered arrives.

What am I leaving out? What else do you do – or, what else should I be doing for the speaker?



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