Every great speech starts with an idea, be it for school or work or a TED talk about your area of speciality. We investigate how to get all those ideas from your head to a written speech and then back to your heart. Author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking“, Sarah Lloyd-Hughes explains the five steps of speech writing…
Even heads of state and other renowned orators have help in writing a speech. They often have professional speech writers to provide them with great content, but you too can learn not only how to talk but also how to write a speech like a pro.
Here are 5 steps that we take our speakers through when they’re writing a speech – and it’s the same process as we use for writing TED style talks.
Speech writing step 1: Get focused
TED talks famously focus on ‘one idea worth spreading’ and this is what helps them to retain their power. Before you write a single line, figure out what the ONE idea is that you’ll shape your talk around.
When your talk has a single focus you’ll see huge benefits:
- Clarity: For yourself and your audience.
- Easy to pass on: Popular talks, like Simon Sinek’s TED talk ‘How great leaders inspire action‘ or Ken Robinson’s TED favourite ‘Do schools kill creativity?‘ are utterly focused and easy to pass on because they have just one idea.
- Powerful: When you’re digging in one hole you get deeper, likewise with your talk you can go further with one idea.
- Memorability: Audiences these days are overwhelmed with ideas and information. You need to be much simpler than you think to stand a chance of your message being remembered.
To find your ‘idea worth spreading’ takes a little time and skill, which is why we’ve devised a complete programme for speakers who are interested in writing World Class Speeches, like the finest TED speakers.
But if you’re just looking for a place to start, these questions will help you get going:
- What do I want to say?
- What effect am I trying to have by speaking?
- If I can only put across one message in my speech, what will that be?
- What is my broader purpose in speaking?
You’re looking for one idea that is clear, interesting and hasn’t been heard before. Good luck!
Speech writing step 2: Think about your audience
Ironically, most speakers completely fail to think about their audience! Yet the best speakers are intimately aware of the needs, questions and doubts facing their audience.
Ask: To whom am I speaking? Before you start writing you first must ask yourself Who is my audience and what are they seeking? Writing a speech for a group of human rights activists would be very different to a speech for business managers. Technology engineers might have a totally different perspective on your subject than a room full of English professors. Thinking deeply about your audience’s needs is the quality of a public speaker I call Empathy. It’s an important starting point on your speech writing journey.
Ask: Why should they listen to you? Great speech writing is grounded in purpose and message. Consider what qualifies you to speak; what you have to offer the audience that they would not be able to hear from anyone else (we all have something).
Ask: What do you want to leave your audience with? As a result of your Empathetic investigations, what would be your desired outcome as a result of the speech? Decide what your main message will be and continually return to that primary point as you compose your speech. This keeps the audience (and you) focused. As Winston Churchill said: “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time with a tremendous whack.”
Speech writing step 3: Build up your speech
Now you have a clear focus to your speech and an idea of how to communicate that clearly to your audience. That’s the skeleton of the speech. It’s now time to fill in that skeleton with meaty content:
- Brain Storming. Make lists of all the things you want to speak about. Once listed, it will be easier to cut or rearrange your points.
- Categorize for the win. Brainstorming should lead to a nice list with several categories. Speech writing is all about organization and finding what fits best with your audience and their needs. Think of these categories as stepping stones. Leaving a gap too large between any two stones and they will turn into stumbling blocks will sinking you and your audience. Speech writing is not very much different than writing a paper; thesis statement, support of the thesis, and a conclusion.
- Edit for the jewels. Look for the key moments in your speech that will stimulate the hearts, minds and even stomachs of your audience. Seek the most vivid experiences and stories that you can use to make your point – these are what will make your speech stand out from all the other public speaking our there.
Speech writing step 4: Create a journey
Another key skill of speech writing is to get the right information in the right order. Think of your speech like a journey up a mountain:
Get ready for the trip (introduction).
- The beginning of your speech is the place where you grab the attention of the audience and get them ready to go on a journey with you. For them to travel up your mountain with you they need to know where you’re going together, why it’s an interesting journey to go on and why you are a credible guide to lead them there.
Pass some interesting sights on the way (main body).
- Keep an audience engaged for an entire speech by raising the stakes, or raising the tension as you progress through the speech. Think about contrasts between the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’ of your subject matter and contrast the two with stories, facts, ideas or examples.
- Here you might write multiple sections to your speech, to help you stay focused. You might like to write an introduction, main body, and conclusion for each section also. All sections don’t have to be the same length. Take time to decide and write about the ones that need the most emphasis.
Reach your summit (climax).
- The climax is the moment of maximum emotional intensity that most powerfully demonstrates your key message. Think of the key ‘Ahah!’ moment that you want to take your audience to. This is the moment where you reach the top of your mountain and marvel at the view together. It’s a powerful, but underused speech writing tool.
A speedy descent (the close).
- Once you’ve hit your climax, the story is almost over. We don’t want to go all the way down the mountain with you, we’d much rather get airlifted off the top of the mountain whilst we still have the buzz of reaching our goal. This is what great speech writing manages time and again.
- Strangely enough the close can be the hardest part of speech writing. Here’s where you get to hit home your action point – the key thing you want your audience to do differently as a result of listening to your speech. Often the close is where speakers undermine the power of the rest of their speech. So, write a memorable conclusion that captures the essence of your speech, give it some punch, and stick to it!
Speech writing step 5: Test your material
Practice your speech several times so that you can feel comfortable with the material. Try the speech out on camera or to a friend to see which parts are most powerful and which you can take the red pen to.
However skilled you are (or not) at speech writing, remember that you are the magic that makes the speech work. It’s your authentic voice that will shine to the audience them and inspire them towards your message.
Follow these speech writing tips, give it some practice and you’ll be sure to be a speech writing winner.
But I’ve collected my years of experience working with world-class conference speakers and TED speakers and distilled it into a simple guidebook that you can access now for just £20 (+VAT).