Writing a Speech? Know This.
It's not enough to say important things. You still have to gain and keep their attention. When it comes to speechwriting, nothing is more important.
When is this going to be over?
When people listen to a speech, this is the most pressing question they have, and the one that should most concern the speechwriter.
To be precise, people want to know how long they’re going to have to pay attention. Why?
Because listening is hard.
My friend, speechwriter and women’s-speech historian Dana Rubin, shared this with me one afternoon while giving a talk to some of my Georgetown students. She had heard it elsewhere and it had the same effect on her as it did on me.
Listening is hard. Why?
Because sitting still for a long time is hard.
Appearing interested is hard.
Not chatting with your neighbor about what you’re hearing is hard.
Containing your reaction is hard.
Compared to reading a few pages at your own pace, listening to a speech calls for something of a high-wire act by the audience. If they miss some key thing, the rest of the speech may become wasted time, and they might not realize that until it’s over. If the speech is important (and let’s be honest, few speeches are truly vital), the listener who doesn’t “get it” will have to spend time tracking “it” down, spending even more time than they planned. And that unpleasant task will begin with admitting to someone that they missed something they were supposed to have gotten in the first place.
So speechwriters need to hang onto that: listening is hard. Just because stuff is important, even vital, doesn’t mean people will automatically pay attention. It’s the speechwriter’s job to make a speech not just interesting but compelling.
So make it easier for your audience to listen. Some ways to do that:
Listening is hard.
Begin by telling them when it’s going to be over. Tell them how long you’re going to speak, or give them a list of the topics you’re going to cover. Even saying “I’m going to cover three things today,” gives the audience a way to pace themselves.
Let them know that you’re aware of what they’re up against. Most people compelled to attend a speech are not happy to be there and they can’t quite say why. But you and I know why: listening is hard. So put them at ease immediately. Make them know that
1) you appreciate that listening takes work,
2) you will endeavor to make listening less of a chore and more of a pleasure, and
3) this won’t take long.
Never assume that they’ll pay attention just because it’s important. Doctors give patients detailed instructions every day that end up half-remembered and barely followed. If life-and-death matters aren’t enough to inspire careful attention, whatever your speaker has to say won’t do it, either.
Think in terms of entertainment. People have to want to listen, not just feel obligated to listen. Write speeches so that they are engaging, compelling, and fun to hear. Even serious topics can be made to draw us in. It’s not easy, I know. But that’s why not everybody attempts to be a speechwriter.