You have to write a speech. Where do you start?


Some speechwriters ask themselves this question whenever they get a new assignment. If the purpose of the speech is to move an audience to action, then a call to arms must be included at the end. But that doesn’t mean that it necessarily must be written first. The argument for tackling the ending first usually rests on two assumptions: (1) the ending is more important than the beginning, because it is the last thing the audience will hear; (2) by writing the ending first, the author will know the conclusion that his claims and arguments must support and therefore will have a clear idea of how the speech should proceed.

Often the conclusion evolves out of the body of the speech, and is not necessarily evident at the beginning.

The problem with (1) is that in this age of continually diminishing attention spans, people must become immediately involved in a speech or they will tune out long before the end. And (2) presupposes that the conclusion of a speech is always known before the speech is written. Often the conclusion evolves out of the body of the speech and is not necessarily evident at the beginning. Although speakers may have a conclusion in mind, they might have to modify it as new information forthcoming in the speech-writing process points to a different result.

An example is when the speech is part of an announcement of quarterly earnings. Without knowing the numbers, the final draft can’t be prepared. However, there is usually a range within which the actual numbers are likely to fall, so the writer can prepare two sets of remarks, one for the optimistic results, the other for the pessimistic. That way all that remains is to add the actual numbers when they are available, making whatever modifications are required in the more accurate pre-existing draft.

I think the opening of a speech is the most fun to write because it can be about anything. One of the best business speeches I have ever read opens with a description of Winnie-the-Pooh falling down stairs. Audiences don’t forget a speech that begins that way. Of course whatever opening you use has to be linked to the theme of the speech. Part of the creative process is in finding such connections.

Endings need to be more structured than openings, because in stating the conclusion arrived at you need to summarize how you got there. That should be done briefly by naming—but not describing—the points raised leading to the conclusion. If you haven’t sold the audience by now, it’s too late.

“I can make three,” responded the Prime Minister, “and you can make two.”

How many points should you make in a 20-minute speech? Winston Churchill was asked that question by a new member of Parliament. “I can make three,” responded the Prime Minister, “and you can make two.” I think he was right. That conversation allegedly took place some 60 years ago, and attention spans have shrunk considerably since then. In asking audience members after a speech what the speaker said, I am usually told no more than two points.

Having made my two points—that the speechwriter doesn’t need to start with the ending but does need a truly compelling opening—I’ll stop here.

Photo—George Armstrong/Flickr