Thursday, 5 February 2015

How To Write a Speech

Written below is the process that I use to write speeches. It is by no means the only method, nor it is a perfect method. I have not written this article to parade as an instruction booklet on how exactly to write a ripper speech—everyone has their own way—but I do believe that there are some elements that may be particularly helpful and hope that sharing my method is useful. 

Writing speeches is an often frustrating and tiring task. For many, it is a very foreign kind of writing style and one, in particular, that isn't encountered very often at school. What therefore makes speech writing difficult is adapting to the style of writing. It is the failure to adapt to the norms of speech writing—that is to write an essay instead—that often leads people to delivering poor speeches. To avoid this, I've developed (accidentally) a relatively particular method of speech writing that certainly diverges from the methods I (or anyone else for that matter) would use to write an essay.



Before physically writing anything, the first thing I have to do first is test out my topic. Given that the vast majority of speeches are persuasive in nature, it is extremely important to test your ideas out first. For this reason, I tend to brainstorm my topics with anyone and everyone. At school, I would talk to teachers about my topic and explain my stand point. They would then offer their views on the subject and, if I were lucky, give me a good argument about the topic. I do the same with friends and family, seeking as many different views as possible and testing my argument out against a variety of people. This intellectual workout is extremely important, as it allows you to establish confidence in your argument, as well as identify where its weaknesses are (and hopefully rectify them). More importantly, brainstorming a speech topic with others allows you to get some practice actually speaking about your topic before you get to writing about it; after all, this is public speaking and in that field, speaking itself is fairly important!


Once the initial brainstorming is done—which can take a few weeks if you're an enormous procrastinator like me—the next thing to do is to write down some of your initial ideas on paper. Personally, I have a special pen with which I do this, but that's me just being a little bit insane. What I first do is write down my topic and the basic ideas behind it. Then I go on to write down evidence that I've gathered and other general things that I feel support my argument. From these, I select a few of them and start to write a structure for my speech. This is a fairly uncomplicated process. The first element of the structure that I try to work out is the introduction. Working out the introduction involves giving thought to how to grab people's attention; specifically, I look into a neat way to introduce my topic, something that people will remember. For example, in my Media Gone Nuts speech, I opted for a humorous introduction wherein I satirised A Current Affair, and after a very healthy dose of sarcasm, introduced the true purpose of my speech. Unlike an essay, speeches do not require an immediate reveal of the topic. In fact, delaying the introduction of your topic a little bit is a powerful device, as the audience will generally be most receptive to your views at the beginning of the speech. 


Once I've got a basic idea of my introduction (this often changes later on), I will start to think about the body. Rather than write down paragraph 1, paragraph 2 etc. I tend to separate my speech into two or three main points. These points are generally woven around evidence that supports the contention that I have introduced in my introduction. Each piece of evidence should advance the discussion and genuinely offer a unique view point. If the evidence is merely something that just proves what I've said in the introduction, it is not worthwhile. Evidence must be accompanied by genuine analysis that develops the speech and develops the idea; otherwise, the audience will (rightly so) lose interest in the speech. Personally, I believe this is a significant pitfall of many speeches: the evidence merely acts as a cheerleader for the original point, so that the body of the speech doesn't contribute anything interesting. You have x time to introduce an idea, so it is extremely important to spend those x minutes on the idea, not just the reasons that it's right! Get it? 


With an introduction and the basic structure of my speech in tact, I will move on to actually writing the speech itself. Note that I haven't yet thought about my conclusion. To me, this seems a somewhat logical decision. The conclusion, after all, should be written at the conclusion of the speech. Only once the character of the speech is set and it's well and truly on paper should you write the conclusion (in my opinion). Writing itself is not a particularly complicated process. The first thing I'll do is write an introduction. This often takes quite some time, as it is the most vital part of the speech. People pay the most attention at the start and at the end of your speech, making the introduction and the conclusion extremely important. In my opinion, the introduction is even more important as it sets the tone of your speech and provides the best opportunity to use some rhetorical flare to get your audience on board. It is the segment of the speech during which your audience decides whether or not it wants to listen to your speech, so it is extreeeeeemely important. After agonising over the wording of the introduction—remember I've already decided the broad approach I'll take to it—I will produce a relatively rough copy of the introduction. After this, I get cracking into the first, second and [sometimes] third point. These are not particularly difficult to write, as I've already done the ground work in my many discussions with people. Once they're done, a rough conclusion is written. 


During the initial writing process, I don't focus too much on wording. The idea is to get a structure down pat and to get some ideas on paper. With all the work that has gone into planning and preparing the speech, often good phrasing will just jump out from nowhere. Along the way, I tend to test some of the phrasing by standing up and reading out the paragraph. This is an extremely important element of speech writing, although it does mean that the first draft can take some time to produce. With the completed first draft done, I usually take a break for a few hours—speech writing is tiring business! After my break, I take my first draft and read (for want of a better word) it out. This process is about presenting the speech, seeing how it operates as a speech. Despite my best efforts during the writing to make it sound as speechy as possible (I refer you back to the phrase testing I mentioned), often the first draft will end up sounding a little too much like writing. This often leads me to completely discarding the first draft and starting again. 


On my next draft, I essentially repeat the same process for the first. Typically, I will focus a lot more on the phraseology. The first draft has given me the structure and the basis of the arguments, but it is often quite poor in terms of its quality as a presentation. Therefore, the second draft is about lifting the argument and structure from the first, and completely discarding its phrasing. Writing the second draft is an active process. I always find myself on my feet, reading out lines and paragraphs and often getting extremely frustrated about its progress. There are tantrums and, I'm sure, unhealthy blood pressures, but this painstaking process ensures that what goes on paper will sound good when spoken. Being up on my feet, moving around and making sure I act out my speech is what guarantees that my second draft is indeed a speech and not just an essay. This, I believe, is one of the most useful things I do in terms of speech writing. After all, it seems somewhat ridiculous to me that the majority of the preparation that goes into giving a speech be sitting down and writing. It's public speaking, so get up and SPEAK! 


With a second draft done, subsequent drafts are essentially revisions of the second draft. Typically, I will rewrite my introduction and conclusion half a million times, though the body tends to stay relatively constant after the second draft. In the case of the body, I'm looking to improve the message. I look for things that sound clunky or that don't logically flow on from the previous point. It is really important that a speech move seamlessly from sentence to sentence, so much of my revision of the body focuses on ensuring that this is the case. The only way to test the flow of a speech is to get up and give it. A seasoned public speaker will hear the clunks in the speech. This is also a good point to present the speech to other people, who will also hear the clunks and will often offer genuinely helpful advice about where they are and how to remove them. In high school in particular I relied very heavily on sound testing my speeches with other people, not merely for the benefit of their advice, but so that I could see how they sound in front of an audience. Often, I found that much of their advice was consistent with what I had already worked out whilst giving the speech, though hearing it from others is an extremely valuable confirmation of your instincts. I must confess that it took quite a while to develop them properly; when I first started public speaking, I was not as well tuned as I'd like to believe I am now.


Another benefit of running through your speech with other people is that it allows you an opportunity to see how the point has sunk in. If people are still able to question your basic arguments on the basis of what you've said in your speech, then this is indication that it's perhaps necessary to do a total rewrite. Total rewrites are extremely frustrating, but are often necessary if there are deficiencies in the argument that you're presenting. Having an opportunity to test some of your jokes (and there should be humour in speeches) in front of an audience is also an extremely valuable contribution to the speech writing process. Most of the time, it's difficult to get a full audience, so a family member or friend will usually do. If they laugh at the right points, lean in at the right points and look impressed at the right points, you're probably on a winner!


Revision of the speech can often take a long time and so can testing with various audiences. The overall idea of that element of the speech writing is to get feedback (mainly from yourself) and to spruce the speech up to conform with that feedback. At the end of the day, the goal is to have a very smooth and structured speech that will genuinely engage your audience. For me personally, as I've let on already, structure is particularly important. I hate hearing clunks in speeches and I hate unimaginative (or perhaps too imaginative as well) transitions—I can thank one of my teachers (Ms Pearce) for that obsession with structure. Luckily for me, she got onto me early and practically drilled the word structure into my head. 


With all the revising done, it's time to really practise the speech and perhaps even get it memorised. I've included this as part of the speech writing process, as even at this late stage I have a tendency to still revise elements of my speech. In particular, I look for ways to slightly improve particular phrases and eliminate even the slightest clunks or structural issues. Often, some of these revisions will be incorporated at the very last second whilst I'm giving the speech (which did often scare the teachers who had been stuck working with me!). 

Anyway, there we have it! That's my method for writing speeches. If you've made it to the end, well done! I do hope that I've managed to add in some sensible advice that may help you whilst you're writing your speeches. I know I have tried to have my public speaking students follow my methods to some extent and, for the most part, that has worked well for them, so perhaps it will for you too!

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