How to take your speech to the next level: 5 tips

how to write your TED talk

Writing a speech is easy. Writing a great speech is a little trickier.  But it isn’t rocket science. So often, speeches fail to reach their potential because five very simple points have been overlooked.  These five points sit at the heart of everything we do at Great Speech Writing, whether it’s for a President, an MP, a CEO, or even the best man at a wedding.  They all refer to the speech writing process (rather than delivery) but if you can cover them all, delivery will instantly become that much more powerful and convincing.

1. Think about your audience, not your subject

We all know too much about what we do and things we are passionate about.  Given the opportunity we can just keep talking about them.  Which is fine if we happen to be chatting to someone who genuinely cares.  Unfortunately, most speeches are given to groups whose levels of interest and enthusiasm are not guaranteed.

So we start not by asking what the speaker wants to say, but what the audience will want to hear.  Do they want a high-level strategic view or a series of details?  Do they want to be motivated or reassured?  Do they know much about the subject already or are they starting from scratch?  Is it appropriate to try to make them laugh?

If, as is typically the case, there are different groups with different profiles in the room, what are their common interests?  How can we appeal to some without patronising others? When push comes to shove, who matters most?

The answers aren’t always straightforward, but by starting with the audience rather than the subject matter, you are on the road to becoming relevant.  And that’s they key to great speechwriting.

2. Work backwards – what do you want them to remember?

So once we know our audience (inside and, potentially, outside the room) we’re thinking the right way.  And it means we are ready for step two.  Which is deciding what we want them to remember.

I’ve asked hundreds of clients what they want the typical member of their audience to wake-up remembering the next day.  Their first answer is usually “all of it” or “all my main points”.

Sadly, this is about as likely as remembering all the ingredients on the back of a crisp packet.  We spend our lives listening, reading and absorbing.  And our brains have a remarkably effective way of filtering out the vast majority.  Take something you truly love: watching a football match; reading a novel; listening to the Archers.  Then try to recall each minute or page.  It’s just not possible.  But you will remember a few key details and a very high-level summary (we played well and won; Heathcliff isn’t such a bad guy after all; the pub burned down but no-one was killed).

Your speech is no different.  Your audience won’t possible remember it all.  You will have succeeded if they remember one key message to take home and wake-up with tomorrow.  It could be ‘this business is going places’ or ‘that lawnmower doesn’t need petrol OR a wire’ or ‘they really ARE going to cut my basic rate of tax’.  Once you know what you want it to be, you then start to plot your speech backwards from that point.

3. Think structure, not detail

I ended the last point by referring to ‘plotting’ your speech rather than ‘writing’ it. This is also fundamental. Too many speech writers decide on the theme and start typing, often when time is tight. That’s not the best route to a punchy, seamless speech.

The interim stage that is so often ignored, involves creating a structure. It’s simple. Your speech will, in effect, be an argument. For something. All that matters is that it leads to your key memorable message, and that you get there in an engaging, relevant way. Your speech structure is an essay plan or, perhaps, 8-10 stages to help you get there.

So, having put the key message at the top of your page, I’d then suggest writing those key headings, and playing around with their order to maximise their impact and the flow from one to the next. Once you’ve got it right, the speech should make sense just by reading down the sub-headings. Ultimately, you may only need to use them (rather than the full script) when delivering the speech. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t fill in the gaps between them. That comes next.

At this stage, if your key message is “Cycling is good for you, buy a bike”, your sub-headings could read:

a) The hook – someone is killed by a bike every day. So it may surprise you that the life expectancy of a cyclist is six years longer than average

b) Stats – not many cyclists are involved in accidents

c) The keys to longevity – regular exercise, non-impact bearing, aerobic

d) How cycling ticks all the boxes

e) Why other forms of exercise don’t

f) Why the right bike matters

g) How we’ve created the right bike

h) And you can buy it at a discount this week!

You’ll notice, that the summary doesn’t, at any stage, include the addresses of our global offices, the number of our staff, or the contact details of 23 salespeople.

4. Only use ‘evidence’ that supports your argument

This is all about relevance (again). With a plan in place, you can now decide what detail to include (and despite my constant reminder to keep a speech ‘high level’ you can’t avoid the nitty gritty altogether). The key is that you ONLY select ‘evidence’ that supports the key argument. And that you never forget that the audience won’t remember it all – they just need to be convinced that your key message is validated. This often means that of that 20 pages of notes you may have on the subject, you’ll just pick a page or two of additional detail. You can save the rest for next time!

5. Write for the SPOKEN word

This process should leave all the right bits in the right place on your page. But it isn’t a speech. This is when to remember that you are writing for the spoken word.

That means writing in a very different way to an email, article or memo.

For a start …

… it means including pauses …

… to slow you down …

… making it easier to deliver …

… which will enable your audience to follow you.

You can then highlight the words that require particular emphasis …

… to bring the speech to life …

… and to stop you sounding monotone.

When a speech is written this way …

… it can have an incredible impact on delivery.
Read at the right pace, you should speak around 120 words per minute. So your 15 minute timeslot at a conference shouldn’t push past 1750 words.

So those are five very simple tips. I can only stress that we use them every day. There is a sixth though. Which is to sprinkle a little speech writing magic to take it to entirely new level. But I’m afraid you have to pay for that one!

For more tips please just drop us your email address; it doesn’t cost anything to chat to a speech writer so please give us a call or drop us a line to discuss your next speech or presentation.