or most people, writing a speech is intimidating.
Why is that?
I think it’s because it’s difficult to know where to begin, what to do next, and when to stop. Even experienced speechwriters often feel this challenge. I believe this applies to every kind of writing, though: it’s difficult for most people to write because it involves ad hoc imposition of order on a broad and often unkempt population of facts, stories, and ideas toward some goal that is often poorly defined if at all.
In other words, it’s worse than herding cats: it’s like herding cats without knowing what you’re herding them toward.
Whether you’re an experienced hand or a newbie, it’s smart to start the speechwriting process with a map. This week, and across the next six weeks, I’m going to go through a simple, six-step guide to writing a speech. It’s not difficult – all you have to do is follow directions. Is there a lot more to you could learn beyond this? Absolutely. But the place to begin is the beginning – the basics. So here are the six steps to writing a speech. In subsequent essays, I’ll drill down on each one.
Step 1: Assess the Event and the Speaker.
Before you write a word, find out all you can about the audience, the location, and the topic. You can never know too much about a speaking event, but start with these:
Step 2: Create a Spec Sheet.
- Why was the speaker invited?
- What do they want him to talk about?
- How does the speaker feel about this topic?
- Where can you get information about this topic?
- What is the big takeaway – the memorable idea – the speaker wants the audience to have in their minds at the end?
- What is his relationship with the audience?
- What does the speaker enjoy talking about?
Write down in a well-organized document everything you’ve learned so far about the event and the speech. Then go looking for more – especially mechanical details such as the physical layout of the venue, the order of the program, other speakers, and more. You'll need this later -- and so will the speaker.
Find out everything you can
about the audience, the location,
and the speaker.
Step 3: Identify the Big Ideas and Put Them in Order.
Don’t write one long speech. Write several small ones. How? Break up the topic of the speech into subtopics or subordinate arguments. You will write tighter, easier-to-understand material when you’re focusing on three or four narrow points instead of trying to fill twenty minutes in endless intellectual directions.
Step 4: Add Evidence.
The big ideas identified above are categories or claims, and evidence is what fills those categories or proves those claims. That is, each section of the speech is led by what you want someone to believe. The material that fills out each section is why they should believe it.
Step 5: Write the Open and the End.
In a typical speech, the hard part is doing the research and converting it to content. The open and the end are exercises in rhetoric, not research, which means they are subjective and therefore less demanding to write. By writing the middle first, you avoid allowing yourself to put off that heavy lifting by rearranging the deck chairs of opening and closing rhetoric.
Step 6. Make it Better.
Writing is mostly rewriting. Polish the work until you’re out of time. That means replacing good stories with better stories, checking for ease of out-loud readability, double-checking for clichés, pushing for as many rehearsals as possible, and doing anything else that smooths off the rough edges.
Next week: Drilling down on Step 1 – what and whom to ask in particular about the event and the speaker.