An Informal Primer to Speechwriting

Updated on December 4, 2018
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Lily is a speechwriter and speechmaker who has consistently been a finalist in her school's speech competitions.

This empty piece of paper may look very familiar. I know it does to me.
This empty piece of paper may look very familiar. I know it does to me.

Speeches and essays are very different from one another with regards to both intent and execution. Essays are often heavily structured, formal and generally abide very stringently to proper writing and grammar. Speeches, on the other hand, may often bend or even outright break many of the conventions that define formal essay writing.

For instance, run-on sentences in an essay are often viewed as a cardinal sin. However, in speeches, they can be used to express a sense of desperation and panic. Slang that would be out of place in a formal essay, like “squad” or “gang”, can easily fit into a more whimsical or informal speech. In fact, such slang might actually work better than more conventional or formal terms.

At first glance, these loosened restrictions might appear to make it easier to write speeches than essays. However, with speeches, it can be much harder to know where to even start. Furthermore, speeches can be accompanied by much stress. After all, you are reading something and (albeit silently) possibly being judged for it by a captive audience.

With that being said, there are ways to know where to start and where to go with one’s speech. In this guide, I’ll go over three short tips that are sure to help.


1. Don't Try to Sound Deep or Profound Just for the Sake of It

The ethics of a hot-button issue. Death and what it means. The meaning of life. All of these can be great speech topics.

That is if you aren’t doing them for the sake of doing them. These topics fall into the category of topics that I would call “deep and profound”. I use the quotation marks not because they can’t make interesting speech topics. Rather, I use quotation marks because, for one reason or another, they often don’t end up making for good speeches.

In theory, these topics are amazing. They’re thought-provoking. Smart. Hip, even. In practice, however, they can often fall apart badly. Grave miscommunications and omissions that come from an attempt to condense content that truth be told, is immensely difficult to condense. A lackluster delivery caused by unenthusiasm in one’s chosen topic. All of these are issues that can stem from doing a topic for the sake of trying to sound deep and profound.

Instead, pick a topic based on personal interest. If that’s something that happens to fall on this list, great, do it anyways! After all, you’re doing the topic for its own sake, not because of how you want to come across. But don’t force yourself into a topic just to try and sound smart.

I would know from experience. A few years back, I decided it would be a good idea to do a speech on the significance and history of death. Not because I wanted to, but because I wanted to do something enlightened (whatever that meant to me). It didn’t work out.

It wasn’t until high school that I realized that it was better to do speeches on things that aligned with my interests. The dangers of coconuts, the woes of daylight saving time, the lessons to be learned from making puns. All of these were somewhat silly, unconventional topics. And yet, despite - or maybe because of that, they were speeches that got me to speech finals at my school.

Doing a speech about death can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience . . . if you're passionate about it, that is.
Doing a speech about death can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience . . . if you're passionate about it, that is. | Source

2. If You Can't Remember Something, It's Not You—It's What You Wrote

Imagine this scenario: you’re practicing your speech in the days leading up to the day of your presentation, and there’s this one line that you just can’t remember or seem to get right. Each time you try reading this line, you bungle it a bit - or maybe a lot. Of course, it might just be that you haven’t practiced enough. However, the issue might instead be with the line rather than your ability to memorize.

Maybe eventually, after many hours of lost sleep and many hours of crying, you’ll memorize that line. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a bad thing. But if you, the author, have struggled to parse a line, your audience will likely struggle to understand it as well.

It’s for this reason that what I find works better is to change a line if I can’t memorize it. It’s a win-win. For me, I won’t need to worry about memorizing that line. For my audience, they won’t need to do a double-take and spend time wondering just what I was saying. Now you obviously can’t just change every line you’re struggling with. However, it’s always worth seriously considering changing a line if you can’t memorize it.

Memorization: it ain't ever a fun time.
Memorization: it ain't ever a fun time.

3. Read the Words as They Come

One great way to shave time off of proofreading and improve your writing is to read what you’re writing as you write it. This helps to avoid some of the more egregious missteps with words that don’t flow or make much sense. While reading silently is quicker and serves the purpose of being better for information retention, reading aloud is good for spotting mistakes and errors.

Moreover, reading aloud can help you to shave time off of rehearsing and memorization. Studies show that reading something out loud does much more to help you remember the way you should say it than reading it in one’s head. Therefore, in reading aloud, two birds are being killed with one stone; both the written speech and the presentation of the speech will end up better.

Conclusion

Of course, this is just about writing: delivering a speech or presentation is a whole other story. But when it comes to writing a speech, even the simple act of keeping in mind that the speech is to be read out loud rather than in one’s head can go a long way to bringing up the quality of one’s speechwriting.

Until next time, may you put your energy into what you like rather than what you think others will enjoy.

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