Best Practices for Successful Speechwriting

A person writing in a notebook, with coffee and laptop nearby
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

One of the questions I get asked the most (particularly by newer members) is, “How do you write a speech?”

Over the last seven years I’ve delivered hundreds of speeches and presentations for a variety of occasions, from my weekly Toastmasters meetings to training workshops, keynotes, technical presentations and product demos. Here I’ve distilled my best practices for you to take and make your own.

Find intersecting interests

First, choose a general topic. There are two rules I obey when choosing a topic:

  1. Something I’m interested in, and
  2. Something the audience wants to hear about.

The first rule can be satisfied by almost anything! Urban farming, candlemaking, the keys to happiness… all that matters is that I find it interesting. It’s easier to write about something I care about, and it leads to a more impassioned presentation.

The second rule can seem daunting. How can I know the interests of everyone in the audience? I can’t. But I do know one thing: they’re all together in that room, at that time, for some reason. Therefore,  I need to figure out what they share in common.

I recently gave a speech at a new Toastmasters club. Even though I didn’t know the members individually, I knew that they were (a) all in sales, and (b) all interested in using Toastmasters to further their career. So I chose the topic of negotiation, based on a book I’d recently read called Never Split the Difference by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. One of the main points of his book is that listening is a key skill in negotiating. I linked this idea to how Toastmasters evaluations are a great way to improve your listening skills.

By focusing my speech on the intersection of my interests with the common interests of the audience I was confident that my topic would be well-received.

A Venn Diagram showing that the perfect topic intersects my interests with those of the audience.

Write it out loud

With a general topic in mind, my next goal is to write the sucky first draft (SFD). I have three rules for this step:

  1. The SFD will suck. It always does, hence the name. Embrace it!
  2. No premature filtering or no editing. Just write down whatever’s in my head.
  3. Write it in a speaking voice, as if I were talking to someone.

The SFD will be too long, poorly worded, filled with disconnected fragments of half-baked ideas, and that’s GOOD! There will be plenty of time to edit and refine later. This first draft serves three important purposes:

  1. It gets all the ideas out of my head and onto the page. This frees up my brain to come up with more ideas!
  2. I can’t organize an entire speech in my head. It’s much easier to do on paper.
  3. It overcomes blank page syndrome

The SFD contains the raw material from which I’ll  build my speech. As Michaelangelo said, every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

A printed block reads "Write without fear. Edit without mercy."
Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

Edit ruthlessly

Now it’s time to turn this jumble of ideas into a proper speech. There are two things I’m aiming for:

  1. Good structure (and hence flow), and
  2. Simplicity.

I start with the main body of the speech, collating related thoughts together, and then shuffling sections around until they make sense in sequence. At some point during this process the true form the speech will reveal itself and it’s real purpose and message will become clear. Then it becomes much easier to judge whether any particular section supports that purpose or not. If it doesn’t, I can cut that section out (and likely save it for another speech; I have a whole file of these fragments like this). If the SFD is my block of stone, my chisel is the DELETE key.

I know I’ve reached this critical point when I can write the speech’s purpose in a single sentence. For example, “By the end of this speech the audience will understand the top two problems caused by plastics in our oceans and three simple ways they can help reduce their impact.”

Once the main points are in place, I can add the introduction that sets the context for the speech, and the conclusion that wraps it up.

Simplicity

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but nothing left to take away.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

At this point I have a speech which is roughly the right shape but still needs more polish. I can, on occasion, be too…wordy. Loquacious. Garrulous. I go off on tangents all the time. So I re-read every sentence and ask, “Is this adding new, relevant information that supports the speech’s purpose? Is there a more concise way I can express this idea?” If not, I keep chiseling the excess away.

A child practices riding their bike
Photo by Jordan Sanchez on Unsplash

Rehearse and refine

To this point, the speech is just words on a page. Now I get to hear how it sounds. I read the whole thing out loud, exactly as written, through to the end. If there’s anything that doesn’t flow, or sounds awkward, I’ll fix it and then read it out loud again.

Depending on the speech topic, length and the occasion, I may repeat this read-edit cycle anywhere from two to a dozen times (or even more for a contest). By the end, I should have a speech which is clear, concise, and rehearsed well enough that I can deliver it without relying on notes.

Summary

This is my approach to speechwriting in a nutshell:

  1. Choose a topic that intersects my interests with common interests of the audience.
  2. Write the sucky first draft to get all my ideas onto the page.
  3. Edit ruthlessly until I have a clear, concise speech.
  4. Rehearse and refine until it sounds good out loud.

Do you have a different approach to writing and delivering speeches? We’d love to hear it. Leave a comment below!

About Stewart Murrie 1 Article
Stewart Murrie, DTM, is a San Francisco-based product designer, speaker and facilitator. In 2017 he won the District 4 Evaluation Contest and was also named the District 4 Toastmaster of the Year. He is an active member of two clubs, Dolby Speakers and San Francisco Storytellers, and has previously served as Area Director and Division Director. Stewart has run many workshops on brainstorming, ideation and creative problem solving, and loves helping people to work and grow together.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this valuable post, Stewart. The best tip I got from it is to write that “sucky first draft” and put all your ideas on the page without editing. Then you’ll start to see what your speech is about. I’m working on a Pathways speech: what I learned about my travel style on my recent trip to Spain.

    • I’m glad you found it useful, Donne. I use the sucky first draft technique for all kinds of things now: for my work, for emails, even for this blog post! Good luck with your speech—I’m sure it will be a hit.

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