Great speeches sound effortless. That means they take a lot of effort.
Like a great sporting or musical performance, an excellent speech is based on a blend of talent, experience, knowledge, creative ideas and teamwork.
Or you could see it as a tasty dish, skilfully cooked by a master-chef.
One speaker; one writer; one or more experts; one big message; one clear structure; and assorted high-quality material – ideas, facts, figures, stories – quotes and jokes to taste.
- Assemble the team. The speaker should be clear on the message and strong in delivery. The writer needs to be great with words. But also include an expert or experts who know the topic well. Then divide the tasks – the expert provides great content; the writer provides a great draft; and the speaker gives a great speech.
- Research aggressively. Gather all the material you can. Slide decks. Press releases. Briefings. Reports. Data. Hassle the experts. Uncover everything the organisation possesses on the topic. Interview the speaker for opinions and anecdotes. The most beautiful writing can’t conceal a lack of nutritious content.
- Find the message. Imagine what the audience member most wants to hear; then imagine what the speaker or organization most want to tell them. Then focus on the sweet spot where they overlap. That will give your speech its distinctive taste.
- Start with a ‘hook-line’. Every great song has one line that people remember. ‘She loves you’; ‘Unbreak my heart’ The best speeches are the same. Distil your sweet spot message into that one central line – the line you want to see on Twitter – and build the whole speech around it.
- Create a simple structure. When you have your central message and hook-line, write down all the points you want to make. Categorise them into a limited number of ‘buckets’. Try to build the buckets into a pattern – like 3 things starting with T; 4 compass points; challenges and solutions; past, present and future; yesterday’s world vs tomorrow’s world; a recipe with 10 steps; whatever works – but arrange it neatly. Structure enhances content. Imagine a lasagne with all the ingredients dumped haphazardly on a plate instead of being nicely layered.
- Talk to yourself. Once you have your message, material and structure, it’s time to get cooking. Go ahead and make the speech in your head – or better, out loud. Go for a walk. Say the words. Come up with key lines. Go home and record it or write it down quickly, using words you’d use in conversation. That will make it a speech rather than a report.
- Pretend you’re the speaker. As you talk to yourself, try to talk in the voice of your speaker. Think about his or her intonation and vocabulary. If you can, record your speaker. Listen to the recording to pick up their mannerisms – what linguists call their ‘idiolect’ or ‘register’.
- Season well. Make everything as interesting as possible. Start with a story or observation rather than a platitude. End with a twist rather than a just a summary. Play with data – not 5,000 kilometres, but the distance from New York to Dublin. Try to add anecdotes and – if they work naturally – a quotation or a joke.
- Clear with care. Speeches need checking – but not crushing. Make sure the people who really need to approve the speech review it – lawyers, press officers, experts – so nothing gets through that’s wrong, actionable or off-message. But don’t let the world and its significant other get their hands on it and suck all the creativity out of it. Never mind the broth, too many cooks definitely spoil the speech.
- Listen and learn. Try to attend the speech. See what goes down well and what bombs, what feels right and what doesn’t. Seek feedback from speaker and audience – and adjust the recipe for the next time. Bon appétit.