The Art of Speechwriting

Just because you are a good speaker doesn’t mean you are a good speechwriter. The advent of PowerPoint software has made the fully scripted paragraph an endangered species, replacing it with bulleted lists, catchy headlines and whiz-bang special effects. But good writing remains at the heart of good speechmaking, particularly when the intent is to inspire or motivate audiences. If you’re among the fortunate few, you may have staff speechwriters or communications experts to help you craft that spellbinding speech. But most of us aren’t that lucky, which means having to face down the terror of the blank computer screen on our own.

So what’s the key to writing a memorable speech that doesn’t lean heavily on PowerPoint for speaker support? We talked to some of the best speechwriters in the business – who between them have written speeches for U.S. presidents, cabinet members and CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies – about what it takes to write a speech that is music to the audience’s ears. 


The Research Process
One thing these pros agree on is this: A speech is only as good as the quality of research and reflection put into it. To that end, Ken Askew, a freelance speechwriter who has written speeches for luminaries like President George H. W. Bush and Lee Iacocca, is constantly on the prowl for ideas to use in speeches, whether his writing assignment is next week or next year.

Askew’s low-tech idea file consists of a large box into which he throws notes jotted on napkins, offbeat news stories emblematic of broader trends, intriguing studies or statistics and clever advertisements. This work usually pays off handsomely down the road. For example, he stumbled across a statistic mentioning the highway with the lowest average speed in the world: the Autobahn in Germany, which most would associate with having the fastest speed. Although people sometimes drive at speeds exceeding 150 mph, when there is an accident on the Autobahn – of which there are many – traffic is backed up and idling for hours, making for the lowest average speed.

“I tore that out and threw it in a box, thinking I might be able to use it down the road for a speech on the necessity of regulation,” Askew says. “Good speechwriters need to be idea sponges. You can’t be too critical when you spot something interesting. If it hooks your imagination, there’s a reason for it, and who knows how you might be able to apply it in the future.”

Hal Gordon, a former speechwriter for Colin Powell and the Reagan White House, is of the same mind regarding research. “Always collect more information than you can possibly use,” Gordon says. “It’s far better to have a mass of information and try to boil it down to 30 minutes than to not have enough and figure out how to pad the speech. If you have more information than you can use, then it follows that you are selecting the very best of that material.”

Culling only the best data, anecdotes or humor – using only one sparkling example to support a point when you’re tempted to use two, for example – is a key to brevity, the hallmark of good speeches. “Have you ever heard a speech that was too short?” asks Jane Tully, president of New York-based Tully Communications, an executive speechwriting company, in an article written for her web site. “I doubt it. But we’ve all squirmed through presentations that droned on well beyond the allotted time – and our most vivid memories of those occasions have little to do with the speaker’s message.”

If you want audiences to stay on the edge of their seats, says Tully, take a hint from mystery writer Elmore Leonard, known for his spare but gripping prose. How does he do it? According to Leonard, “I leave out the parts people skip.” 


One Word After Another
While elite speechwriters have varied writing habits, there is a recurring theme: Most suggest getting your core thoughts and ideas down in some form before putting your critic’s hat on. The key is not to edit yourself too early in the process, lest you get stuck at the starting gate.

Askew writes his first drafts in the form of a relational database. Basic ideas and concepts are written on large Post-It notes, placed on a whiteboard and then connected with circles or lines. “I move the Post-its around as I think through the speech,” Askew says. “I always include far more than I can fit in a speech by design, which makes editing a challenge. I usually end up pulling about 80 percent of the notes off the board.”

Like many professional speechwriters, Askew often squirms when asked by clients to provide an outline before writing a speech. He prefers to write a one-page speech summary, what’s known in the field as a “destination” document. “It communicates the gestalt of the main point, the feel, tone and what it is you are trying to achieve with the speech, or the central metaphor you want to use,” Askew says.

David Green, president of Uncommon Knowledge, an executive speechwriting firm in Haworth, New Jersey, compares a client asking a speechwriter for an outline to a book publisher requesting a detailed roadmap from a novelist. “Novelists I talk to often say they start out intending for their story to go in one direction, but their characters wouldn’t let them go there, so they had to go a different way,” says Green. “In the course of writing a speech, I often take it in directions I didn’t expect.”

Although many professionals opt for a more free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness approach in writing a first draft, some won’t move forward until they’ve honed their first page or two to near perfection. Capture the audience early, this thinking goes, or prepare to lose them quickly.

“I am tortuous about the first page, super tortuous about the first paragraph and insanely tortuous about the first sentence or two of every speech I write,” says Askew.

Green prefers to write out an entire speech, then reduce it to a series of talking points. He takes a cue from speech coaches, who believe speakers should start by creating six or so summary-type sentences – essentially one-liners – each with a compelling central point and story. Those statements can then be threaded together into a 30-minute speech. “Good speakers are good storytellers, and that doesn’t just mean having good stories or anecdotes,” Green says. “It also means having a rhythm and sense of pace in the presentation, all of which comes from good writing.”

When crafting speeches for executive clients, Marilynn Mobley, a senior vice president for Edelman, a public relations firm in Atlanta, also writes out her entire script word for word before creating summary statements. “The benefit is it allows the speaker to see the whole rhythm of the speech and the flow of it,” Mobley says. “That overview helps the speaker use the bullet points to better capture the intended pacing and timing.”

Mobley uses a color-coding method to help ensure she has the right mix of content in her speeches. Once she finishes an early draft, she marks each line with a different colored marker – red might be for facts and figures, green for anecdotes, and yellow for humor. She then spreads out the whole speech on the floor or tapes it to a wall to allow her to scan for wide swatches of red, green or yellow. “I’m not necessarily looking to achieve equal balance between the different types of information, but rather to determine whether I am going a long time just providing data or humor, for example,” Mobley says. “I might rearrange some things, add in some more humor, look for other ways to explain data.”

Don’t think the terror of confronting a blank computer screen is limited to amateur or part-time speechwriters, says Green. Even veterans like himself experience writers’ block. One key to overcoming it, he believes, is to simply get started, letting the first draft “pour out like cheap champagne” without being overly critical of what’s appearing on screen. “When I first began writing, I had to make every sentence perfect before moving on to the next,” he says. “It took me years to be able to write in a more organic, freestyle method.” If a thought or idea occurs to you, Green suggests getting it up on the screen somewhere, even partially formed, with the knowledge that it will eventually get incorporated and revised in a way that makes sense.

Green also believes a change of scenery can do wonders for freeing up mental log-jams. “When I worked for an advertising agency in New York City, New York, I used to tell my boss, ‘you should pay me to walk back and forth from the subway to the office, because that’s where some of my best ideas come from.’”


Writing for the Ear
Mobley believes one of the biggest mistakes that novice speechwriters make is writing for the eye rather than the ear. She suggests reading out loud everything you write, since it not only helps refine rhythm but can unearth hidden problems. Mobley, for example, once wrote a speech that used the phrase “in an ironic twist.” Upon speaking the line, however, she found it something of a tongue twister. “On paper it looked fine, but once I tried saying it, it was a different story, so I dropped it rather than risk stumbling over it.”

In a blog written for the web site of Ragan Communications, Gordon stressed the importance of drawing pictures with your words. “The ear processes words more slowly than the eye,” he says. “Accordingly, drawing a picture with words will often help the audience grasp the message that the speaker is trying to convey.” For example, Gordon cites a famous remark associated with President Franklin Roosevelt: “I hate war.” While the quotation is accurate, it has diminished impact as a sound bite removed from its context. Roosevelt’s full statement read this way:

“I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”

Says Gordon: “Simply saying ‘I hate war’ would have only been a catch phrase. After the word picture Roosevelt drew from his own experience, no one could doubt that his assertion, ‘I hate war,’ came from the depths of his heart.”

Writing for the ear means capturing the way audiences speak, not how they write, Mobley stresses. In everyday conversation, people typically use contractions; when they write they usually don’t. “Using contractions may not be proper writing, but it is plain speaking,” Mobley says. “We should write like we speak.”

The key, says Laura Lee, president of OverViews, an executive speechwriting company near Detroit, Michigan, is not to “create grandiloquent rhetoric, but to express your own personality, passions and perspectives in ways that those who know you best will say, ‘Yes, that’s him.’”


Avoiding the PowerPoint Trap
It’s easy to fall into the trap of using PowerPoint, the omnipresent and user-friendly presentation design software, in a way many speakers do today: with bulleted lists and text-heavy slides serving as the centerpiece of a presentation. Yet because that’s what many audiences have come to expect – speakers leaning heavily on PowerPoint as a crutch by “reading from the screen” – it also represents a missed opportunity. Green, for one, promotes more creative uses of speaker support as a way to help his clients’ messages stand out from the pack.

In one 40-slide speech Green developed for a client on the value of innovation, some 60 percent of the slides featured one-liners making a provocative statement or question, and the rest contained optical illusions that enforced the idea of looking at things from different perspectives. “It allowed the speaker to create a break in the flow of his comments and create a sense of ‘chapters’ by having these interesting visuals,” says Green.

In another speech, Green’s mission was to highlight the difference between simplicity and complexity in product features. Rather than spelling out the distinction in a series of snooze-inducing bullet points, Green used the paintings of Jackson Pollack to represent complexity and those of Mark Rothko to represent simplicity. “You want your audience to have some kind of takeaway, and they’re not going to be able to take away an entire 30-minute speech,” Green says. “What they’re most likely to take away is one or two compelling ideas or good lines.”

In the Summer 2007 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Diana Schaub, chairman of the political science department at Loyola College in Maryland, argued that use of bullet points has undermined the quality of speechmaking in the U.S. “Hierarchy may be antithetical to democracy, but it is essential to logic,” she wrote. “The replacement of paragraphs with bullet points indicates the democratization of logic. But the equality of all sentences destroys the connectedness of thought. The scattershot technique of contemporary speechmaking can bowl you over if the speaker has sufficient force of personality, but it can’t pierce your mind or heart, and it certainly can’t do it as written rather than spoken.”

Adds Mobley to the debate over the much-used software: “There’s a reason you never see PowerPoint used during a eulogy.”


The Golden Rule
Whatever process you choose to research, write or revise a speech, it pays to remember a golden rule of speechwriting: Audiences don’t want to know how much you know, they want to know what they can do with the knowledge you’ve accumulated.

“The really great writers and speakers give us insight, not just ideas,” says Mobley. “A good idea makes the audience say, ‘I never thought of that.’ But insight makes them say, I never thought of it that way.’”


Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer who divides his time between Wisconsin and South Carolina.





3 Rules for Capturing Audience Interest

David Green, president of Uncommon Knowledge, an executive speechwriting company in New Jersey, offers three rules for virtually any speaking challenge – rules he says will help any audience sit up and take notice, for the right reasons.


Rule 1: Counter-program
The audience has expectations. If they’ve heard you before, they think they know what to expect. If they haven’t heard you, they group you with other keynoters or speakers they’ve heard from your industry. Green says you have to break through their preconceptions. If everyone else is using text-heavy PowerPoint support, consider using dramatic photos. If everyone else is forecasting the future of your industry, focus on eye-opening lessons from the past. If your public persona is fire-breathing, use a more “fireside” style.


Rule 2: Speaker support should only support
You’ve seen them all. Text-flooded PowerPoint slides that look like pages of a book. Charts dense with information, with typeface reduced to barely readable size so it all fits on a slide.

Every time a new slide comes up, the audience stops listening to the speaker while reading the slide. Then there are those presenters who speak straight from their slides, adding few ad-libs or spontaneous thoughts.

People can either read the slides or listen to the speaker, but they cannot do both simultaneously. If you are simply parroting your slides, you’ve essentially made yourself superfluous, maybe even a nuisance. Hal Gordon, a former speechwriter for U.S. General Colin Powell, recounts the story of Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, attending a PowerPoint presentation given by a GE staff member. The speaker was reading directly from each slide, and finally Welch, fed up, called out, “Look, I can read as well as you can. If this is your presentation, why don’t you just hand me your slides and we can be done with it.”

If you must use PowerPoint, use it as an outline only to prompt your memory and give your audience a roadmap. After all, it’s not your software giving the speech – it’s you!


Rule 3: Play the Audience
A speech is live theater. You don’t have to entertain, but you do have to tell a compelling story. The audience is not out to get you…usually. But they won’t hang on your every word either, unless you lure them in.

So know your audience – and your speaking environment. The audience will expect something different from you as a conference keynote speaker than if you are leading a panel or having a face-to-face discussion with them. Then use your best sense of what they want from you – and give them something more, or something different, or something that bends their perspective.

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