Speechwriting For The Rest Of Us

Not all of us have a speechwriter.

So, here’s the scenario. You have to give a 10 minute speech at your student club’s event on raising puppies effectively (I’m sure it’s happened somewhere). Or, you’re tasked with “rallying the troops” before a major fundraising campaign for your charity. Perhaps you’re the valedictorian for your grade. Or a staff member introducing your department to prospective students at a recruitment fair.

Many of these situations seem extremely different: and they are, when you focus on the differences themselves. But when you look at the similarities, you’ll find that each of these share common traits:

  • You have to stand infront of an audience and speak
  • No one has written the speech for you (or they have, and speech writing is NOT in their skillset)
  • You have to get a message across in one go
  • … You need a message
  • You’re trying to educate the audience, or spur them to action

And many more common traits these scenarios have. But the challenge is that, unlike the high-profile politician or CEO, you don’t have a staff that is designated to help you prepare a message. You don’t have a Press Secretary, a Speech Writer, or any Communications staff that can even advise much. It’s just you and your colleague. Or friend. Or not even a friend, maybe some random person you met that day who said “hey lemme read over this!” before you get on stage.

Not a fun scenario to be in. But, one we find ourselves in quite frequently, and one that doesn’t have many resources to offer (as these “resources” are typically meant for high-level executives, politicians, public figures, or whoever pays to the highest bidder).

Thankfully, the resources are out there to learn from. They come from a variety of places: the podcasts that host former speechwriters, psychologists that study the human reaction to language, the intense scientific study of charisma and its applications to name a few. The challenge is that these resources are scattered amongst their niche realms, not always applied to new arenas of communication. This issue — the scattering of knowledge — is one that has troubled me for many years, and one that I am committed to addressing in my life.

This blog post, by extension, is my attempt to address the gap of educating the public in effective communication, for the people that need it. It is for the eager student who wants to nail their presentation in class, or to move others to the cause they support. It’s for the young professional speaking at their first TEDx Talk (or similar). It’s for the retiree trying to share their wisdom with others. On stage. Or under the spotlight.

My knowledge comes from many resources, some eluded to earlier: the study of charisma & social psychology, the analysis of political figures, and the “trial by fire” of presenting & speaking in various capacities for over 7 years. It is my hopes that this post aids you in your journey to becoming a more effective speaker as well.

So, let’s jump into it. Here’s 5 suggestions for speechwriting (and speaking) for the rest of us.

Suggestion #1: Follow the 1–3–1 structure

If you’re new to speech writing (or speaking in general) you know how difficult it can be. You have to figure out what the hell you’re going to talk about, how you’re going to do so, all while ensuring you don’t pass out from the adrenaline spike or walk on stage without your pants. It can feel quite daunting to put together encouraging words and an effective speech, especially when you’re the ring leader that has to bring people together in some capacity. That’s the unfortunate nature of giving a speech: for the majority of the time, it’s just you up there.

Thankfully there’s some practices to make this process easier. This structure is one that I learned from Olivia Fox Cabane’s “Charisma Myth”, where she analyzes and breaks down the habits, mentalities, and practices of some of the most charismatic figures in a way that is practical and applicable. I tweaked it a bit to fit this context, but the overall principles remain similar.

It’s fairly straight forward. Each speech needs to have an overall point: a theme that shapes the narrative that flows from it. That’s what the first 1 in the 1–3–1 structure means. When you’re preparing your speech, define your theme. It’ll chart the course for you.

For example: if you’re speaking to new university students, your theme could be “why involvement matters” (your theme & the title of your speech, if you have one, are often similar). Or, it could be how this fundraiser will save a life. Or how a new behaviour saved yours. You don’t need to get fancy with it. To start, ask yourself:

“what do I want to accomplish with this speech? What message do I want to get across?”

Once you know, it’s easier to shape that answer into a theme that you then base your speech off of.

The 3 is the goal for the amount of supporting points you want to have to your overall theme. These are different arguments you want to make to reinforce your theme, to solidify and prove its legitimacy. 3 is the magic number because information grouped into threes is typically easier to remember. My general rule of thumb is to stay in the 1–5 range (5 being slightly more risky), but if you can condense your supporting points into 3 main ones, you’re golden. You’ll find a lot of presentations & speeches out there have a set number of supporting points, as high as 10 and as low as 1. The 3 is a suggestion, but find whatever works!

The final 1 is your conclusion, or your wrap up. This is where you re-introduce your theme, with the supporting points having clarified and reinforced the original theme. Conclusions don’t need to specifically state what has already been said, but refer to what’s been spoken as a soft reminder, and to “bring everything together” so to speak. This is also the opportunity to request an action: to encourage the audience to donate, to get involved, or to treat their neighbours better (I’ll elaborate more during suggestion #4).

So there you have it. The 1–3–1 structure. It’s the one I always suggest people use when first making a speech, due to its simplicity and flexibility. It also adhere’s to Scott Berkun’s (author of Confession’s of a Public Speaker) rule that an outline is a necessity. This gives you a structure to build an outline off of.

You’ll noticed that Adam Grant works in threes here: giver, taker, & matcher (and then 3 methods of getting more givers). Starts with the argument, defines, it, gives 3 supporting arguments, then creates a call to action.

You’ll notice online that it’s hard to find this structure (1–3–1). Many public speeches are well developed and fleshed out, so they bypass this 1–3–1 structure for something more complex. That being said, you’ll see the pattern of overarching theme, supporting arguments, and drive home point in many speeches.

Suggestion #2: Movement is a Necessity

Have you ever seen someone stand infront of an audience and talk, and remain in the exact position they started in the entire time? Even behind a podium/table, they don’t sway with the stories, their hands don’t peel away from them, or they show little expression. It’s a common occurrence for anyone who’s new to speaking. Standing infront of a group of people staring at you while you talk can be daunting (there’s a reason why people are deathly afraid of it), and it’s even harder to try and fix (especially when you’re boxed in by those podiums or tables, hence why I typically stand up with a microphone and walk, or just project my voice. I’m a loud guy.)

It’s imperative that you move during your speech to remove any stagnation from it. Movement excites us: it shows you’re dynamic, and your message is dynamic. It allows you to live the story you’re telling, to get closer (physically and mentally) with your audience, and to allow you to drive home your points. It also makes your audience engage with you, as they’re now following you around the space rather than stare at one spot.

Now I know what you’re saying: “yeah that’s great Andrew, but how the hell am I supposed to move when I’m THIS FREAKED OUT?!”

Unfortunately I don’t have a definitive answer for you. Everyone’s experience is different, and the journey to getting over your fears of speaking and to embrace movement are as contextual are they come. All I can offer are some suggestions that I have found worked for me, have worked for others, and have been reoccurring themes in the various resources I refer to.

  • Memorize the speech, or atleast the main points: the more you know off by heart, the less you need to refer to any sheet or slide. This allows you the freedom to “take the message with you” when you move around.
  • Exposure: start gradual, and slowly expose yourself to speaking dynamics, presentations, etc., slowly growing in audience size. You may not have complete control over this, but if you can, set yourself up to have comfortably challenging group sizes and scenarios to present to.
  • Get yourself in the zone: have a pre-speech ritual you rehearse to get your head in the game. I like to take 3 deep breathes leading up to the speech, and on the third breathe fill my mind with thoughts of exciting times in my life. Then when I walk up, wave to the audience while smiling. Dress well (presentable but comfortable) and make sure you’re warmed up (maybe go for a walk before hand, around the building/up and down the halls in a quiet area).
  • Familiarize yourself with the area: if possible, get to the venue ahead of time. Survey it so you know the space you can take up, any obstacles in your way, or to just allow yourself to connect & understand the room.

These are a few practices I’ve found that have helped me and others with adjusting to speaking, which allows them to embody the message and move away from the “dock”, to enter new waters.

Notice how he goes across the stage, projects his voice, and gestures with his hands?

(Scott is a phenomenal speaker, and I’ve applied the lessons I’ve learned in his book “Confessions of a Public Speaker” to every speech I’ve ever given. Refer his book to anyone who wants to be a better speaker.)

Suggestion #3: Start With A Story

Every Sunday growing up, the pastor presenting the sermon would begin with a story they experienced in their life. It may have been something they heard from a friend, something they experienced when they were younger, or a story they heard from the internet. The details didn’t matter, just that the start of the sermon was always a story. It always had a point to it, one we’d learn at the end of the tale and the beginning of the actual “lesson” of the sermon. It always set the context for the lesson, introduced it, and was used as a way to define what the scripture aimed to teach.

This practice of using a story isn’t limited to the religious realm. Many speakers use stories in their speeches and presentations, and for good reason: storytelling is one of the most profound and strongest methods of information sharing, going back to the infancy of our race as human beings. Effective storytelling sweeps us up in the narrative, because it gives us an experience to connect to. Even if we haven’t shared the experience, we can understand it, because it’s played out for us in a way that lets us picture in our minds the events of the story.

Storytelling has a number of benefits: as mentioned before, it sets the context for the speech. It’s an entertaining and engaging way to explain your theme, in a way that makes it easier for the audience to understand. Stories are hard to argue with (as it’s difficult to disprove someone’s experience), and even harder because we’re too busy following the story to point out parts we disagree with. Stories put the audience (whether there’s 10 of them or 10,000) in the shoes of the main character (be it you, a friend, a random, or a made up person), and bridge the audience and the message via base emotions & human experiences (hope, fear, happiness, struggle, victory, defeat, etc.)

Crafting an effective story is a whole post on it’s own, so I’ll break down the basics:

  • Make sure it’s relevant to your message & the message is a part of the story (too many people tell a story only for the audience to forget it’s original point). Bonus points if you try to tie the story closer to the experiences of the audience (EG: using stories of your first time in first year to prospective students)
  • The closer you tell it like it’s happening right then, the more exciting it is (EG: instead of “so I ran fast”, try saying “so here I am running as fast as I can”). This also allows you to embody the story and make it more dynamic
  • Lead up to a climax (IE: the resolving event/action, such as making the right or wrong decision and the consequences of that decision, then going on to explain what those mean)
  • End with a reference to the lesson you’re trying to make, using that as a bridge to the next point (the story → lesson format is kilometres better than the lesson → story format, which kind of spoils the story).
  • Yes, I used kilometres instead of miles. I’m Canadian. Fight me.

If you’d like to see an example of a powerful speech that uses a story first, check out the original G.O.A.T: Barack Obama.

In this speech, Obama starts his speech talking about his family heritage and the sacrifices they made to build a better future for their children and grandchildren, and how that shaped Obama and what he would come to stand for.

Check out his speech and look for how those stories resonate with the audience, and most likely, yourself. I have very little in common with Obama. But I’m a person of colour, and the stories of his parents resonate with me because of the similarities my family and my friend’s families have had.

Suggestion #4: End With A Call To Action

All great speeches serve to mobilize us. To encourage us to act, in some capacity, that is different than how we’re acting right now. Whether that action is specific or vague, large or small, current or in the future, these speeches call on us to do something. Ending with a call to action is an extremely beneficial practice in speeches, as it shifts the experience from the audience being passive listeners to active participants. They’re no longer idly absorbing information, but are now tasked with something to do.

Engaging speeches are built on this function: on asking the audience to do something, such as adopting a new behaviour or different way of thinking. If you’re trying to learn how to give an effective speech, chances are you have an audience, and you want them to do something (whether it’s donate, join your club, sponsor a child, learn to help one another, look at things differently, etc.)

It’s important you save your call to action to the end, as your speech sets the context of why the desired action needs to take place. Your story will show the lesson you want to teach and the impact of that lesson, your supporting points will drive home the theme, and the theme itself will stay with the audience. Once you’ve explained the who, what, when, where, and why, you can now explain the how. How much detail you use here is dependent on the context. In many cases, the call to action is disguised as an example of behaviour (many charities use stories focusing on “why I donate” instead of asking you to donate, subtly showing you what your donation will accomplish), and some are very clear asks (Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” speech is an example of that).

However you design your call to action, ensure it waits until the end of your speech, once you’ve done your best to prepare the soil and plant the seeds. Then, you call on them to act.

Notice how in this speech, Charlie Chaplin’s character routinely uses the word “fight” in various scenarios. The call to action here is to “fight”, or to actively struggle for a better future.

Suggestion #5: Know When To Deviate From The Above

All rules are subject to challenge at one point or another. After all, life is not a textbook, and context matters more than anything. I’ve titled each section as a “suggestion” because what works best is truly dependent on many factors: you, your audience, your setting, your context, your goal. These different variables can determine the realities of your speech, and it’s important to acknowledge them. When you understand these factors and hold them in your mind as you prepare to speak, you’ll learn what situations may work best. Sometimes, you might need to go way beyond 3 points, and reach as high as 10 points you want to make in a presentation. Sometimes your speech doesn’t have a call to action: sometimes you just want to share a story, with a small lesson that no one needs to fully apply. Sometimes you’ll be stuck behind a podium and can’t move away from it, or maybe you need to tell a story while sitting down (physical restrictions, the mic being glued to the table, etc.).

Life is complex, and that’s what makes it exciting. Be alive to the moment: it’s through that, that you will determine the best way to share, the best stories to share, and the best lessons to share.

At the end of the day, there are very few mortal sins of public speaking (although public speakers like myself may rage on and on about bad habits and actions speakers have made). Chances are, your stumbling or mess ups will be forgotten as quickly as they came. Knowing this allows you to focus on what matters, to forget about the problems that we’ve made up, and to aim to share our uniqueness: which, for all our rough edges, is what we use to connect with each other.

Don’t hesitate to throw these suggestions out the window to do something unique and exciting. After all, it is your speech, and the best speech you can give is one where your message is in line with you.

Extra Suggestions From The Podium:

  • Practice Practice Practice! You adjust the more you’re exposed
  • If you’re comfortable & it’s possible, have a wireless mic (one on your head instead of a handheld one)
  • Mingle with the audience beforehand (allows you to have a friend in the crowd)
  • Tell people to sit close to the stage (energy amplifies when people are close, and dissipates the farther they are)
  • Avoid big words: if you have to use them, ensure you define the them
  • If the context is right, use positive emotions
  • Never turn your back on the crowd (if you have powerpoint slides, you can turn your heard to look back, but never turn 180 degrees)
  • Have a piece of paper with your outline, or memorize your outline (incase technology fails you)
  • Talk to people about their thoughts on the speech & ways you can improve
  • Hygiene, skincare, & clothing make a big difference (so take care of yourself)
  • Thank your emcee (and if appropriate, the support staff, the speakers before, and at the end the audience)
  • Use the word “imagine”, as it makes them engage with your stories and thus invest more into the speech
  • Use the “show of hands” trick, asking them to raise their hand (EG: “raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten butterflies before speaking”)
  • Breathe. You’re going to do great.

To Conclude…

Thank you for tagging along on this crash course of speechwriting and speaking 101. Speaking has been one of my greatest passions, one I hope others will begin to embrace, as it is becoming increasingly necessary for people to step up to the stage and call on each other to be better people. In this growing age of paralysis by analysis, information overwhelm, apathy and confusion, we need people to grab hold of the microphone (literally) and direct us to walk down a better path. I hope this long-winded and detailed crash course will help you start your own journey to becoming a positive influence in your community.

Supporting Authors & People

  • Scott Berkun (Author of Confessions of a Public Speaker), my first personal study in effective speaking
  • Olivia Fox Cabane (Author of Charisma Myth), my first personal study of charisma and personal magnetism
  • Charisma on Command (for always tying charisma to fun & exciting topics)
  • George Lakoff (Author of Don’t Think of an Elephant & Metaphor’s We Live By) & Frank Luntz (Author of Words That Work), for starting me on my journey to understanding the psychology of language
  • Mr. Fletcher (my highschool teacher), who taught me the necessity of effective speaking during my highschool Co-Prime-Minister run
  • “Tour Guide Mom” Michelle (my old boss when I was a Tour Guide), who always listened to my rants about how my tours went & encouraged my gradual improvement over time
  • The Communications Team (from my home department on my campus), each of you teaching me how to be an effective presenter to the camera & social media world, and the importance of taking care of oneself

Let me know what you think. My inbox is always open!

And as always,

Carpe Diem, kids.

Poli Sci grad, Comms Strategist, great at remembering names and terrible at pronouncing them. I write on a number of different topics!