David has been a writer for more than a decade having ghostwritten hundreds of speeches for executives in business and academia.
Ghostwriting a speech can be challenging. You’re not only writing for someone else, you are trying to capture a voice that is not your own. This is no easy task. It is a skill that can be developed over time, but not something you can pick up immediately.
With this in mind, there are tips that you can use to get started in the right direction on your journey as a speechwriter.
1. Understand Your Audience
The first step in writing any sort of speech is to first understand your audience. Who are they? What do they want to get out of your remarks? Are they looking to be inspired? Educated? Entertained? Or, perhaps even flattered?
These questions are a vital first step that sets the tone for your speech regardless of the topic the speech will be focused on. For example, if the audience is looking for an instructional speech you can create an easily defined set of takeaways. This could sound like the following:
"When starting a business there are three vital steps for success. One: passion. Two: customer service. And, three: resilience. Let’s begin with the first step: passion."
You can see in this example how to clearly lay out the main points you will aim to cover making it easy for your audience to follow along and take notes. For inspirational-type speeches, it may be best to begin with a story. It doesn’t have to be a story from your lived experience, but must be something that the audience can connect with and anchor the speech’s focus.
Again, start with the audience as a first step and the rest should start to fall into place.
2. Make Note of How the Person Speaks and Writes
It is very important to understand how the person you will be writing for, also known as your Principal, speaks and writes. You can begin by reading something they’ve written whether it be a series of emails, memos, articles, or blog posts. Something to give you a hint as to how they categorize information. Do they start with a story? Do they like lists?
Next, try to listen to past speeches they’ve delivered or simply have a conversation with them and record it. This will give you a glimpse as to how they speak, the language they use, and particular words they favor when speaking. Perhaps they love using adverbs like “absolutely” or buzzwords like “synergy” or “group think” that you can add in to capture their voice.
This is particularly important because no matter what, a person will speak more fluidly and with confidence when it is in their voice as opposed to trying to push language and five syllable words into a speech that they've never used before.
Everyone has a particular voice and great speechwriters can mimic that voice and add something to it along the way.
3. Use Repetitive Cadence
You have to go into writing any speech assuming that you will hold only a fraction of your audience's attention. You can hold their focus in many ways, such as through effective storytelling, but it isn’t the only tool at your disposal.
As a speechwriter you can also use what I call repetitive cadence of words or phrases to keep people engaged. Exceptional orators and politicians use this to their advantage to drive a point home.
Here's an example:
"The more we search … the more we work … and the more we discover together will bring us closer to success."
The person delivering the speech should be emphasizing the words in bold with the ellipses being used as pauses in the delivery. This formatting is important when articulating to your Principal how to deliver the lines. It is very similar to a movie script.
This is a very powerful way speakers often stress their points during TED Talks like the example below at approximately the 5:50 mark.
You can take this one step further by using an opposite adjective at the end of the section like this:
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“We’ve found that implementing this teaching technique creates an overall higher literacy rate, a higher rate of attendance, and a lower rate of dropouts.”
The change in adjective can draw in your audience, no matter who your writing for and can be worked in for nearly any speech.
4. Use Statistics Sparingly, But Powerfully
If you’re like me, you love reading statistics. They are compelling, finite, and easy to grab onto as a reader. This is not always true for a live audience. Statistics are very useful in proving or stressing a point, but the more specific the numbers and the more you use them the more confusing and meaningless they become to your audience.
In one of President Obama’s most well known speeches on the economy in 2013, the President only mentions statistics nine times. Just nine in a speech of more than 6000 words. But it is a good example of how he and his speech writers landed on those statistics.
Here’s an example:
"The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income -- it now takes half. Whereas in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more."
You may notice that the statistics are broad and round - top 10 percent, 20 to 30 times - they are numbers you can easily picture in your head without a visual aid. And, the final number “273 times” is an outlier for a reason. It is specific because it is so outrageous.
With this in mind, stick to statistical examples that an audience can remember and likely parrot back to you if you ask, such as “more than half” and “75 percent of people”. You’ll be doing your Principal a service by not getting too in the weeds of statistical specifics, unless that is absolutely necessary for the audience.
5. Keep Your Sentences Short and Tight
People generally do not speak like they write. I would not naturally talk in a similar fashion to how I am currently writing this, and that’s okay, but when it comes to writing a speech for someone, sentence length is very important. You cannot expect someone to read a sentence that is 26 words long and filled with five well placed, grammatical commas. It might read perfectly fine, but when spoken out loud feels like a run-on thought forcing your audience to disengage.
Keeping your sentences tight makes it easier for the person to actually read the speech and for the audience to follow them. Below is an example:
"There is no doubt in my mind that we can keep succeeding, because everyone here today has made a tremendous impact on our company, and I know you are capable of so much more."
"I have no doubt that we can keep succeeding. I know that because of the impact each of you have made on our company. And, I also know you are capable of so much more."
The commas in the Original do act as natural pauses, but by breaking up the sentence into three distinct thoughts you are giving each of them weight as they are read. When in doubt, read the section aloud and determine where natural breaks are as you read it. I also tend to use a 20-word limit per sentence as a rule of thumb in my ghostwritten speeches.
I may be able to read a 35-word sentence as it was intended to be read, but that’s mainly because I wrote it. You cannot count on your Principal to be able to do the same.
6. Summarize Your Thesis One Last Time
Don’t forget to summarize your main points at the end of the speech. This is very important for any speech over five minutes. As a speechwriter you have little control in what or how your Principal sticks to your script. And, in my experience you simply cannot count on them to deliver your speech as written out, even if you emphasize your thesis throughout.
Instead, you can bring your main points back in front of the audience - and your Principal - one last time at the end. You can do this through a story or through a simple reiteration of the core takeaways mentioned throughout the speech and before you end with a common, "Thank you for your time and attention" conclusion.
7. Give Yourself Time for Collaboration and Feedback
Your first draft is rarely your final draft. It definitely shouldn’t be if you haven’t written for that person before. You should give yourself enough time, and also humility, to hand in a first draft and work as a team with your Principal to develop a draft both of you are comfortable with.
If your Principal doesn’t like something you’ve written, simply find out why they disagree with it, explain your reasoning to keep it the way it is, and be okay with the Principal’s final decision. You are the writer, not the one delivering the speech. Leave your ego at the door and be okay with making a change because at the end of the day you get to sit in the audience or back at your desk and not be the one actually delivering the speech.
Speech writing is a truly fun experience for those who get to do it day in and day out. It has its challenges, but it is rewarding to listen to a speech you've written spoken to an engaged audience and also receive the gratitude of the person you wrote for.
© 2019 David Tubbs
Liz Westwood from UK on September 28, 2019:
This article gives some great tips on speech writing. Judging by the quality of some of the recent political speeches in the UK, the writers could have done with reading this first!