How To Write a Great Speech

September 17th, 2008   •   4 comments   

Michelle Obama DNC

Michelle Obama at the DNC (courtesy of AP Images)

[This post was updated twice on end March 2015 and 27 July 2016]

Michelle Obama brought the house down at the Democratic National Convention this year. Her wonderful speech affirming Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was widely lauded as one of the best speeches made in the ongoing race for the President of the United States, with elections slated for 8 November 2016.

Some have even proclaimed that she was the star of the show that night – and she isn’t even a politician by any measure of the word!

Indeed, a well-made speech can be an extremely powerful tool in politics.

Last year, as we bade farewell to our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the last week of March 2015, I couldn’t help but be enraptured by his powerful speeches from the past. Eulogies delivered by his children (including our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong) and grandchildren were heartfelt, poignant and emotionally touching.

Indeed, one of the toughest skill to master in the world of public relations is the art and science of crafting fabulous speeches. Penning persuasive prose takes lots of blood, sweat and tears. Memorable speeches are forged in the intersection of great content, brilliant delivery, and perfect timing.

Are there tips to writing and delivering good speeches? Definitely.

#1 Know Your Content

First, you need to understand your subject matter. Great speeches come from great content.

Often, the folks in Public Relations or Corp Comms doing the speech writing are not involved in the operational details of the topic. Spend time putting together the facts, figures, and interesting bits of information. Research on your topic and ask as many questions as you need to.

#2 Know Your Context

Understand the context in which your speech will be delievered. What are the hot topics and news items of the day? What are people talking about both online and offline?  Is there an “Elephant in the room” which you need to consider?

By taking some time to distill the mood of the day, you are better able to deliver a rousing speech that hits the right emotional and logical buttons.

#3 Know Your Audiences

Next, you need to know your audiences. What is the cultural contexts in which your speech will sit in? Who will the speaker be addressing? What are the concerns and cares of the people listening?

Knowing your audiences is a vital element of successful speeches. Without understanding their histories, cultural norms, and idiosyncrasies, your speeches are likely to fall on deaf ears. Above all, demonstrate empathy with the folks you are speaking to.

#4 Know Your Speaker

You also need to appreciate who your speaker is. For communication professionals in public service, we often have to write speeches for politicians.

Some prefer a more informal and friendly banter approach. Others are more stoic and formal. Then, there are iconoclasts like Lee Kuan Yew, Steve Jobs, and Martin Luther King Jr who make speeches that rowse the emotions and stir the gut.

Read through their previous speeches. See if there is a certain “house style” or trademark which forms part of the speaker’s personal brand.

#5 Know How It Flows

Pay attention to the flow and rhythm of your sentences and paragraphs. A speech with long and languorous sentences are going to make people fall asleep. Similarly, one that is peppered full of short sentences will sound like a machine gun rattling away.

Opt for a nice blend of short and long sentences.

#6 Refuse the Obtuse

Stay away from obtuse and bombastic words. This doesn’t mean that your speech must sound like its written by a 6-year old. Rather, choose words that are impactful yet easily understood by the majority.

Remember that your job is not to sound smart, but to make the audience feel that they are smart!

#7 Write Like How You Speak

Write what you speak and speak what you write. Go through each line mentally. Better yet, say what you write out loud.

Words and phrases which sound good on paper sometimes fall flat when delivered on a podium.

#8 Turn Away Tongue Twisters

You also need to be aware of tongue twisters. Those convoluted combination of words which trip your tongue have no place in a public presentation. Steer clear away from them.

Peter piper didn’t pick this peck of pickled prose!

#9 Start Strong

Start strongly and aim to impress from the word “go”. Speeches which begin with a whole laundry list of Grammy Award style “Thank Yous!” make me snore. Aim to start with significant drama and suspense and shun conventional approaches.

Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” is a great example of a speech which starts really strong. Watch it here and let me know what you think.

Martin Luther King Speech
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr – One of the greatest orators of all time (courtesy of National Geographic Kids)

#10 End Explosively

Whilst the start of speeches are key, their endings are just as important. In my view, great speeches have a strong call to action which implores listeners to do one or two things when they return.

Don’t let your speeches end with a fizzle. Make your endings sizzle.

#11 Add a Dash of Drama

Good speeches are also full of personality, colour and life. How you angle them depend on the occasion and the audience.

A celebratory function call for something light-hearted and laced with humour. On the other hand, a rallying event needs to be fortified with strong and compelling phrases that motivate, inspire and encourage.

#12 Show Skin in the Game

The best speakers do not just implore you to take action with impactful words and powerful phrases. They also show that they are personally invested in the outcomes of their speeches, and not just a figurehead arrowed to deliver a speech.

The most memorable speeches are intimately connected to the beliefs, values and feelings of the speaker himself or herself. Incorporating that personal twist makes all the difference between connecting with your audiences and leaving them cold.

American First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent speech on 25 July 2016 at the Democratic National Convention is an excellent example of how you can make your speeches personal and relatable. Watch it below to see what I mean.

#13 Revisit and Revise Repeatedly

Don’t be afraid to revisit your speech and rewrite parts of it where necessary. Attempting to come up with a Gettysberg address in one sleepy afternoon is going to be impossible.

Rome isn’t built in a day. Neither is a monumental speech.

Take a walk in the part, have a coffee (or glass of wine if it works better), and come back to your script when you are sufficiently refreshed.

#14 Practice Practice Practice!

Finally, as advised by one of the commenters here, we need to practice our speeches until they are perfect. While there are gifted orators who can just wing it and speak extemporaneously, the majority of us need to season our tongues and lips before the show starts.

Great Speeches in History

Some of the greatest speeches – and speech makers – I have come across include the following distinguished persons. They all have a slightly different style, but every one of them are memorable and impactful:

Lee Kuan Yew Election Rally 1976
Lee Kuan Yew at the election rally at Fullerton Square in 1976 (image courtesy of The Straits Times)

What are your experiences like with speech writing and speech making? Are there other lessons that we should take note of?

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  1. posted on Sep 17, 2008 at 5:53 AM

    You forgot the most important thing. PRACTICE! Practice, practice, practice.

  2. posted on Sep 18, 2008 at 12:29 AM

    Very nice article. Thank you.

    I write speeches for public presentation, as an emcee for my friend’s wedding, and for my own video blog. Need not to say, the former one is the more successful one probably because like you said: understand the audience.

    It is tough. I find myself having writing a nice long speech and when I do the practice and voice recording, it just doesn’t work. I learn to keep it short, simple, and impactful. You brought up a good point, has to have a mix.

    What I find the hardest is to add humor into speeches. What is funny to me may not be funny to others. And a funny part has to deliver with such conviction. That is hard if my confidence level is not great.

    I personally like our PM’s first national rally speech. I stayed at the TV for that 3 hours and tried to order the CD at the govenment site (erm .. somehow they never send it to me). I like Obama’s speeches too. And of course, Randy Pausch.

  3. posted on Mar 23, 2009 at 8:17 PM

    Very nice tips you compiled here. In my opinion the importance of knowing your audience can’t be stressed enough here. If you know your audience’s interests, needs, humor etc. you’ve halfway won.

  4. Sean
    posted on Dec 15, 2009 at 6:39 AM

    Don’t forget that an audience’s favorite word is “you.” Don’t over-use it, but definitely state your power-lines or applause lines incorporating that perspective. Those 3 little letters go a long way to transforming a really good speech into a speech that’s received as amazing!

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