Small Steps to Successful Speechwriting

A guest arrives at your Toastmasters club and is warmly greeted. He sees an energetic meeting, hears more about programs and benefits that Toastmasters offers, and immediately signs up. Right from the start, he attends regularly, participates in the weekly Table Topics, and continues to hear great speeches and evaluations. He gives his Ice Breaker, and maybe his second speech. Then, inexplicably, he cancels out of giving his next speech three times in a row, or fails to even show up when he is scheduled to speak.

As a long-time Toastmaster, I have witnessed this phenomenon in many, if not most, new members. They appear eager to learn and grow. They participate willingly in Table Topics and take on roles such as the Timer and the Ah-Counter. So what happens after that first or second speech?

Often, it’s that beginning speakers feel they’re in over their head. If I see what appears to be an avoidance pattern developing with new members, I like to approach them and ask if anything is holding them back. When they get past the initial justifications of time or work commitments, they usually tell me some version of being overwhelmed by all the elements of writing and giving a speech. The more they’ve listened to evaluations of speeches by more seasoned members, the more they become aware that there are many nuances to writing and delivering a good speech.

My advice to a new Toastmaster in regards to speech delivery is to choose one element, such as gestures or eye contact, to focus on until you have developed some comfort and skill in that area – then choose another element to work on. You can practice that delivery element each time you participate in Table Topics, reminding yourself to focus on it whenever you’re called to speak.

Furthermore, you can ask a mentor or friend to give you feedback each week about how you’re progressing with that particular skill. Remember, the projects in the Toastmasters Communication and Leadership manuals are set up to teach one skill at a time.

When I ask what is hampering the new member’s speechwriting, the answer is usually some variation of “I don’t know how to write a speech.” Here’s the advice I usually give:

  • A speech is simply telling a group of people about something you are interested in.
  • You want to convey that message in a way that is memorable. Therefore, what you tell people and how you tell it are the elements of making a speech. Virtually any topic can be interesting, and I have heard many fascinating speeches on fairly mundane topics, such as baking bread, the history of soap and microcredit.
  • After you have selected a general topic, ask yourself, What is my purpose in giving this speech? The purpose is usually to inform, to inspire or to entertain. Deciding on the purpose will help you narrow the focus to a particular aspect or slant. For example, suppose you settled on the topic of Winston Churchill. If your speech purpose is to inform your audience, you might speak about how he was never elected Prime Minister of England but was appointed to that position by the King of England in May 1940 for the duration of World War II.
  • If the speech is to be inspiring, you might focus on how Churchill’s leadership and speaking abilities helped the Allies win the war, despite poor preparation by Churchill’s predecessor. For an entertaining slant on Churchill, you might focus on his humor and famous quips, such as this gibe he made toward his archrival, Lady Astor: “I’m fat and you’re ugly – but I can diet.”

Here are a couple of other examples on the subject of speech purpose: If you’re a nurse and wanted to speak about nursing, you might give an inspiring speech about a heroic child conquering cancer, or talk about your nursing education for an informative speech, or share some funny stories about patients for an entertaining speech. Suppose you are passionate about mountain climbing. An entertaining speech might focus on some of the remarkable people you have met on your climbs, an informative speech might discuss the equipment climbers use, and an inspiring speech could tell about the personal transformation you have made through climbing.

Now – and I believe this step is critical to a cohesive speech – write down in one sentence what your talk is going to convey. You may or may not say that sentence within your speech, but it should be understood by all listeners that this sentence is the message of your speech. For example, the message of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech might be condensed to, “I believe that some day black people will have the same rights as white people.” 


                    “A speech is simply telling a group of people
                    about something you are interested in.”



At this point, draft an outline. An outline is the bridge between your one-sentence speech idea and your actual speech. It creates the structure of a speech and consists of three main sections: the opening, the speech body and the conclusion. What attention-getting device will you open your speech with? What points will you make in the speech body? And how will you close your speech?

Most beginning speech writers find the easiest format to be the classic “tell, tell, tell.” In your opening, let your audience know what you will be speaking about. Make one main point in your speech, using three points or pieces of evidence to back up that main point. Summarize your speech at the end of the speech body or in your conclusion. In this way, you narrow your topic to something that can be covered adequately in a five-to-seven-minute speech.

I write out my speech in full, even though I usually deliver talks just using an outline. Writing the speech in full has three purposes:

  • I ensure that my ideas flow logically and smoothly.
  • From experience I know approximately how long it will take me to deliver my speech (for example, four handwritten pages takes me seven minutes to deliver).
  • If I get nervous, which I still do, having reviewed my speech in detail tends to help me find the right words when I’m at the podium.

Conclusions are perhaps the most difficult area of writing a speech, even for more experienced Toastmasters. I struggled with speech conclusions until I learned the importance of defining your speech’s purpose. Writing a conclusion with impact is much easier knowing whether you are trying to inform, entertain or inspire your audience. Inspirational speeches usually end with a challenge to take some action, whereas the conclusions of informative and entertaining speeches usually relate back to the opening sentences. Strive to make the conclusion memorable.

As you write your speech, it sometimes can take on a life of its own and you deviate from your original purpose or even the topic. So after you have written it, give it the test of clarity one more time: Check if its message can be condensed to a single sentence. It may not be the sentence you originally intended, but if you like the speech, its purpose is clear and the message can be stated in a single sentence, then you have created a coherent speech.

The last stage is writing your introduction – a brief description of your speech to be read by the person introducing you. New speakers often take the first minute of their speech to explain the background on their topic; however, any explanation you might be tempted to make belongs in an introduction. For example, if your audience contains younger people or members from other countries, then an introduction to a speech about Churchill could briefly note his role in World War II.

You prepare your introduction and send it to the Toastmaster in advance or hand it to her before your meeting begins. (Different clubs have different policies regarding this process.) Then, when you begin to talk, you launch from “Madame Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters and Distinguished Guests” directly into the opening sentence of your speech.

If you’re new to a Toastmasters club, don’t be overwhelmed when it’s your turn to give a speech. Instead, let these strategies guide you to success! 


Aileen Storoshchuk, ATMB, CL, is a member of Grand Blanc Toastmasters in Grand Blanc, Michigan. Reach her at aistor@comcast.net.

 


STEPS FOR PREPARING A SPEECH:

  • Think of an idea for your talk.
  • Decide your speech’s purpose.
  • Come up with a particular slant or focus.
  • Write down your message in one sentence.
  • Draft an outline with an opening, body and conclusion.
  • Write out your complete speech.
  • Do the single sentence test.
  • Write something out for the person introducing you.

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