This is Week 4 in my series on how to write any speech. Last week I explained the value of composing a spec sheet before you begin to write. This week I’ll explain how to write the middle of the speech – the part that in most cases you should prepare before you write an opening or an ending.
Steps 3 & 4: Find the subordinate arguments and back them with evidence.
(Note: There are lots of ways to structure a speech, from extended metaphors and stories to the emotion-driven psychology of the Motivated Sequence. This series of essays explores what I call the "classic" style, which is a straightforward presentation of fact and argument. It's the ideal style to start understanding how speeches work, and essential to grasp before trying other structures.)
At this point, you have the topic for the speech and what you want the talk to achieve. Now think of several subordinate assertions. What are subordinate assertions? The best way to understand them is to consider them in action. Let’s say I’m writing a speech to advocate for the end of capital punishment. (Another note: I’ve chosen this position because I need a straightforward example, not because of my feelings for or against capital punishment.)
It’s not just elegant simplicity.
It’s effective argument.
The writer will probably state the claim -- Let's outlaw capital punishment!
-- then bombard the audience with facts, statistics, assertions, stories, and anything else that might win them over.
But there is a more effective way.
Let’s find some narrower positions which, if the audience can be persuaded of them, might lead them to consider or even agree to the larger point. For instance, perhaps I could get the audience to open their minds to these smaller arguments:
- Capital punishment does not seem to deter other criminals.
- Capital punishment is more expensive than life in prison.
- Capital punishment is applied inconsistently with respect to race and circumstance.
- Defendants who can pay for a lavish defense avoid capital punishment far more often than those who can only afford a minimal or even typical defense.
- With the rise of DNA evidence, we now see that we have put many innocent defendants to death.
These are subordinate assertions
, subordinate or in service to
the overall argument of the speech. A 15-minute speech might cover three or four of these subtopics. In this way, the speaker gets to make his case three or four ways – and three or four times. If you’re in the audience and you don’t “buy” the first argument, hang on. Another one’s on its way.
Subordinate assertions let you take several swings at the ball, so to speak. In addition, it gives the audience a change of topic every few minutes. This is so much easier to listen to than what could quickly become a rant. Remember, when it comes to the middle:
- Pick your topic.
- Pick your subordinate assertions.
- Back each with evidence that matches the audience’s interests and passions.
It’s not just elegant simplicity. It’s effective argument.
Next week: Step 5, Write the opening and the closing.
Next week: Step 3, Identify and Prioritize the Big Ideas.