Millions of people watched the State of the Union address. Speeches clearly matter.
But with so much emphasis on written content in these digital days, we may be losing the art of writing and delivering great speeches.
With email, blog posts, instant messaging, and tweets dominating our communications at work, it’s easy to think that written content is king. And yet TED talks draw sell-out crowds who pay top dollar for their seats, and the world’s top speakers get hundreds of thousands per appearance. Why? Because, frankly, hearing someone deliver a brilliant speech live is a much more powerful experience than reading their words on a screen.
And every great speech starts with great writing.
Writing To Be Read Vs. Writing To Be Said
Whether for a keynote speech, a board presentation, or a team meeting, writing an inspiring speech is a very different skill from writing a blog post. That’s because the way we speak is inherently different from the way we write. We don’t speak in paragraphs or bullet points. We use shorter sentences. We repeat ourselves for dramatic effect. We use more visual language. Take Martin Luther King Jr’s "I Have A Dream" speech. Had it been a piece of corporate writing, his editors might have suggested something like this:
I have a dream that one day:
• This nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.
• The sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together.
• Little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin.
Beyond The Performance
While there’s something to be said about the connection with a live audience, speeches are no longer just about keeping a roomful of people interested for an hour. Your keynote at that conference will be recorded and shared online with a much bigger audience the world over. These are people who will simply click back to the funny kitten video if you don’t grab and hold their attention. So it’s more important than ever to make every word count.
Whether you write your own speeches or have a corporate speech writer do it for you, you’ll know how hard it is to get it right. Here are five sure-fire tips to hone your skills and make sure your next speech hits home:
1. Give your audience clear orientation: Let your audience know what’s coming, and where they are along the way. Steve Jobs did this particularly well in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford, which started: “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life.” He then clearly indicated the start of each new story as he went along: “The first story is about connecting the dots ... My second story is about love and loss ... My third story is about death.” This helps to keep your audience focused on your message, instead of wondering where you’re going with it and when they’ll get a bathroom break.
2. Tell personal stories: Your audience will immediately relate to you more if you share an anecdote from your own life. But make sure your stories are genuine, because we can all tell the difference. British politicians’ stories about having a pint with “a man called Dave” have become a punchline instead of a way to connect.
3. Balance the present and the future: To capture your audience’s imagination and hold their attention, structure your speech so it constantly moves between the reality of the present and the possibilities of the future. A great example is Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech, which starts: “Today we are entering a new era for our country and its people,” then goes on to juxtapose the present and the past with his vision for the new South Africa.
4. Insert soundbites: If all goes well, your words will live on. So when reading over your speech, ask: What line will people tweet afterward? If nothing jumps out at you, actively put in something pithy and powerful that your audience can easily remember. Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” line was so memorable, it still stands for defiance and determination 74 years later.
5. Inject rhythm and pace: Even if you don’t have, say, a pleasing baritone like James Earl Jones, you can give your speech a musicality that will keep your audience hanging on your every word. Use repetition, alliteration, and a balance of short and long sentences for the same captivating effect as JFK’s "Moon" speech.
My fellow Americans: Follow these tips and you’ll get applause from both sides of the aisle.