Last week, I identified six steps to writing any speech. Now I’ll go through each of those steps in detail.
Step 1: Assess the Event and the Speaker.
Before you write anything, consider who will be listening and who will be speaking. Any information you can collect – anything whatsoever – might turn out to be useful. This is a step for gathering data, not casting out data. You can always ignore useless stuff later. For now, don’t make judgments.
What kind of information might this be? Consider the audience. How many people will there be? Consider the demographics of the audience. Ask why they are attending and if they paid to get in. What is their relationship to the speaker? Do they like him? Do they trust him? Do they want something from him?
Consider the speaker. What is she supposed to talk about? What does she like to talk about? Does she prefer certain kinds of events over others? What makes her comfortable? What makes her nervous? How does she prepare? What does she use when she speaks, notes? A prompter? A text? Memorization?
Principals aren’t being difficult
because they want to be.
And consider the venue and the event itself. When does it take place? Is your speaker going up during lunch? After? Before? What are the chairs going to be like? What about the audio system? Will people be sitting at tables?
A lot of this stuff may not affect what you write or how you write it, but some of it will, and much of it will be useful in later steps, so set it aside.
As you assess the event and the speaker, consider also the practicalities and mechanics of speechwriting – the basics, the bones. Start by asking yourself this: What’s the big takeaway? What do I want the audience to be thinking about when they leave?
Before you begin to write, be able to state this in a pointed, pithy sentence of no more than ten or so words. If you can’t narrow it down to a short sentence, you’re either trying to write about too much, or you don’t understand the topic well enough to write it up in the first place. Speeches cannot go on and on and on – oh, some do, but those are not effective. Don't kid yourself otherwise.
Speeches need to make a point and move on, not make “a bunch of points” and move on. A single speech should convey a single idea. While that idea may be supported by a variety of evidences and claims, the whole of the thing must point to one big idea. Identify that thing, write it down, and be sure it is the thing you want the audience to remember.
Finally, hang on to these little facts and insights as you make your assessments in preparation to write:
- Speechwriting is collaborative, but rarely in a good way. It’s not typically, “You write this part and I’ll write that part.” It’s “You write the whole thing, then I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.” I’m kidding, but not entirely. Principals aren’t being difficult because they want to be. They require guidance on how to ask for changes. A speechwriter’s job is not to be a stenographer. A speechwriter should facilitate the editing process by co-exploring, as much as possible, the topic and material before the writing begins, not after.
- Iterative versions can help the writer and principal understand the requirements of the speech. Speechwriting is ultimately about helping an audience understand, but preliminary drafts are often about helping the writer and speaker understand.
- Plan deadlines so that, if possible, a speaker gets a draft with an assignment attached: revise, rehearse, or discuss. Leaving a speaker with a free hand over a long period of time will almost always yield edits that may not account for how a speech fits together. For example, a speaker might cut a line at the end whose appearance is critical to a point set up a thousand words earlier. Speechwriters think of the whole thing while speakers-as-editors often do not.
Next week: Step 2, Create a Sheet of Specifications.