A speech is one of the most powerful tools for putting ideas across to large numbers of people. Since the American Revolution, speeches delivered by political leaders and social justice icons have galvanized masses and served as catalysts for change. The most famous speeches throughout time have managed to provoke thought, inspire hope, move minds, and usher in new eras in the popular conscience. This sample coursework explores strategies to improve speech writing.
At some point in your educational or professional career, you’ll likely be assigned to write and deliver a speech before a small, midsized, or large audience. While the thought of delivering a speech in any capacity can seem intimidating, it’s a challenge that can easily be met with a well–written, riveting, charismatic speech. Whether you’re booked to deliver a speech at a graduation, award ceremony, or special event before fellow students or work colleagues, you could leave an indelible impression by following a few key oratorical tricks.
Understand the fundamentals of speech writing
Before you write a speech, it’s important to know the difference between a speech and a lecture. While the latter is designed to educate a roomful of people, the purpose of a speech is to speak with passion about a topic that resonates. A speech doesn’t need to be lengthy or cover a wide range of topics. In most scenarios, a simple speech on one subject will suffice.
In order to lay the groundwork for a speech, you’ll need to have a topic that relates to the event at which you’re slated to speak. If you’ve been assigned to write the speech—and there’s leeway regarding the things that you can cover—select a topic that ties to themes of hope, courage, perseverance, determination, and other inspirational subject matter. Themes such as these have a tendency to resonate with audiences.
Determine the message behind your speech
Now that you’re visualizing yourself speaking before an audience, it’s time to determine the kind of message you wish to convey. The quality of your speech will largely depend on its message; without one, your words could come off as vapid and empty, regardless of how much volume or energy you manage to muster before a crowd. Therefore, it isn’t enough to simply walk onto a stage or podium just because you’ve been assigned the task by a professor or employer; you must arm yourself in advance with something worth talking about.
Essentially, the message—which provides a unifying theme that gives a speech its purpose—is akin to the thesis in a written work. In speech writing, the way to identify the thesis is to take the topic you plan to talk about and tie it to a personal story; something that would convey the significance of your message. For a speech that concerns the mastering of skills despite a handicap, include an example of yourself or someone you know. Here, the underlying message could be that triumph takes courage and determination in the face of odds.
As you relate the speech to your own life, it’s important to remember that the speech is about more than just yourself; it’s about everyone in the audience who identifies with the stories you share. Therefore, you should refrain from anything boastful about your talents or victories in life. If you’ve excelled in a sport, don’t spend time describing the trophies you’ve won; focus instead on the inspirations that motivated you to gain the skills at which you’ve ultimately triumphed. That way, your message will be relatable to others, because it’ll appeal to their sense of determination and will to succeed.
Organize the contents of your speech
Now that you have the topic and message of your speech figured out, it’s time to outline each basic point into a coherent order with proper flow. Structurally, a speech can be thought of in four stages:
This is where you introduce yourself and present the topic.
Here is where you go into detail about the topic as it relates to the audience.
This is the part where you tie the topic to a personal experience that makes it all relatable on a human level.
Here you share the moral of the story and conclude things on a congruent note: funny, serious, intense, etc.
Structure is needed in order to guide the audience along through valleys, hills, and slopes. In many ways, the four–part structure outlined above is akin to a sonata (not to be confused with a sonnet). A sonata is a time-honored musical form since the Classical period, in which a composition unfolds in four stages:
Without this structure, your speech could unravel into a shapelessness more akin to free jazz, which might be entertaining to a few listeners, but is generally not the sort of thing that captivates audiences at large.
Harness the power of three
As far as the subconscious mind is concerned, three is a magic number. When you’re presenting an argument, you’ll likely be more persuasive with three examples to back up your claims. Whereas a mere one or two examples in an argument will often be dismissed as coincidences or exceptions to the rule, three has a tendency to overcome people’s incredulity. People also have an easier time remembering groups of three or remembering anything that gets restated three times consecutively. For decades, the rule has been exploited in pop songs, in which the chorus is typically repeated three times. College students use similar strategies to boost memory for final exams.
For speech writing, three could serve as your silent weapon for slaying the audience. The trick is to think of three different angles to your main message; each angle should correlate and help with the flow of your speech. In order to get the ball rolling, write down a list of stories, anecdotes, and sub–topics that directly relate to the primary message. After jotting these ideas down on paper, select the three that would most suit your speech and transcend with audience members.
Captivate a crowd on an intellectual and emotional level
A speech is most powerful if it manages to stick in people’s minds and leave people with food for thought and quotes to pass onto others. The objective is not necessarily to proselytize but to inspire and energize. To that end, a speech should contain words that will fuel an impassioned delivery when spoken before an audience. This can be achieved with stories, examples, or anecdotes that appeal to people’s emotions.
For example, if you give a speech about rising to the top of your field, you could talk about how you started your journey and the obstacles you faced along the way. If you came from nothing and made a million, that might serve as a story of hope that could ultimately appeal to the dreamer in everyone. Even if you started with a leg up in life, surely some of your forebears were born into less than ideal circumstances; share their story and relate it to your gradual rise from strength to strength.
Choose language befitting to the audience
Knowing in advance the types of people that will be in the audience, you’ll want to choose words that match their maturity and education level. If you’re going to be speaking to a roomful of children or teenagers, for instance, you wouldn’t want to use the kinds of academic words that would be more appropriate for a speech before postgraduates. By the same token, don’t assume that a younger audience needs to hear things in an overly simplified manner, or be educated on concepts that they probably understand already by age 10, 12, or 14.
Communication is the very essence of language selection; it’s a matter of reflection and empathy. The way to make a speech communicative is to imagine things through the eyes of an audience. Based on who they are, ask yourself: what sorts of things in life are most important to them? Career success? Innovation? Good grades? Personal happiness? Long–lasting health? Zero in on the subjects that would interest your audience, and offer the positive reinforcements and words of inspiration that they’re hoping to hear; whether you’re speaking to patients at a hospital, children at an elementary school, graduates at a postsecondary institute, voters at a rally, or executives at a business conference.
Make your speech personal for those in attendance
If your speech touches upon things that your audience has experienced or is currently experiencing, it’s likelier to resonate with them on a more personal level. This includes learning the difference between male and female nonverbal communication. For example, if you’re giving a speech before voters in a town that have struggled with unemployment, your speech should include a call for bonding, such as the following:
- We’ve all been hit by this recession. You and I are both all too familiar with the discomfort of not knowing whether a new job opportunity will arrive before the savings runs out.
- Like many of you, I know exactly what it’s like to wake up worried if the money will run out before the next round of bills are paid.
From there, you could share some of your own experiences with unemployment, or—if you haven’t personally dealt with such issues—the experiences of a relative or close friend. A couple of minutes devoted to your employment and financial struggles could then segue into words of encouragement and perseverance.
As you write these words in preparation for your appearance, don’t think of this as something you’ll be sharing with a roomful of strangers; think of the personal anecdotes in your speech as passages from a letter to a close, personal friend. Convince yourself in advance that you share a deep bond with your audience.
The purpose here is to make yourself relatable to others. Whether or not you’re currently faced with the same issues that impact their lives, you’re conveying an understand of those problems and directing them forward. If you pull this off successfully, you’ll have a deep rapport with your audience long before you exit the stage. Even though most of the people in the audience will have just met you, you’ll seem like a long time friend.
Stay focused on the message
You have a topic with an underlying message, as well as three examples—personal and anecdotal—that support your overall point. A few minutes can be devoted to each example, but don’t get carried away with trivial minutia. Tangents are a common pitfall of novice speakers, and it’s something that you can avoid by staying on message. Use strong action verbs and don’t ramble. If you ramble, the audience might get confused or bored, and your message could lose its impact. Therefore, once you’ve shared an example and adequately covered its key details, move onto the next example without digressing.
Synchronize your speech to a Slideshow
The impact of a speech is largely reliant on the coherence of its structure, but this is generally more felt than noticed among audience members. Chances are, people will come away talking about the stories you’ve shared, especially the passages that invoke profundity, hilarity, and anything visual. The visual element can be enhanced with the use of a PowerPoint presentation.
When certain passages of a speech are tied to photographs, it helps create visual memories in the minds of people in the audience. Of course, different visuals will appeal to different audiences and age groups. Everyone loves animals, but visuals of grand heights, breathtaking scenic views, and ancient monuments are likelier to appeal to teenagers and adults; whereas children tend to respond better to pictures of superheroes and cartoon characters.
For example, a picture of Superman in flight could be flashed on screen as you talk to 6th graders about the power that one can achieve through hard study. An adult version of that speech—where you talk about braving the odds to conquer a highly competitive field—could be synchronized with images of death–defying stunts, such as tightrope artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 high–wire crossing between the World Trade Towers.
Allow yourself to pause for emphasis
For the novice speaker, silence before a crowd might seem tantamount to the dreaded awkward pause on a first date. The experienced speaker, by contrast, is comfortable with silence in front of new and familiar faces alike. Funny enough, the confident person who pauses in stride is generally perceived as more confident than the person who talks unusually fast just to fill up space. In order to win over an audience, you want to be more like that first individual.
So instead of rushing from one sentence or topic to another, roll with the pauses and allow them to give your speech some breathing space. When you’re hitting on salient points, silence can be your most powerful weapon. Better yet, as you edge upon some shocking, profound, or revelatory moment in your speech, slow down gradually and drop the bombshell with a crescendo. For added emphasis during these moments, lower your voice with each passing breath, dramatize your expressions, and lock eyes with random people around the room. President Barack Obama successfully used this technique in his 2012 DNC speech.
Deliver your opening line with energy
The most exciting events are the kind that gets right to the good stuff, whether it’s a ball game that kicks off with some amazing pass, a movie that opens with a jaw–dropping shocker, or a song that starts with a super–catchy intro. In most great speeches, something similar occurs: the speaker captivates his or her audience upon taking the stage.
Therefore, the moment you take to the stage, get right into the act. Whether your speech is meant to be humorous, profound, agitating, mournful, or inspirational, hit the audience with one of your best shots without hesitation. Before the opening round of applause subsides, deliver one of the most shocking, harrowing, or uplifting lines in your entire speech. It doesn’t even have to be your own line; a lot of great speeches begin with an immortal quote or proverb.
Speak in an inclusive manner
Connecting with a roomful of people is not too dissimilar to connecting with an individual. In both situations, you need to strike up rapport with the other party. One of the most effective ways to gain rapport with new people is to use inclusive pronouns at every appropriate juncture. Whenever you’re discussing something universal or inarguable, describe the experience through pronouns such as “we,” “our,” and “us.” For example, Obama used several of these inclusive phrases during his last State of the Union Address in 2016.
We all watched in disbelief—glued to our TV screens with our loved ones—at the horror right in front of us, as that great, mighty elephant was gunned down with 87 bullets.
Regardless of whether or not a given audience member caught the incident on television, he or she will no doubt empathize with the sentiments of that passage. In other instances, inclusive pronouns are inappropriate. It’s best to refrain from such vocabulary during passages of a speech where you’re touching on a personal opinion or subjective experience:
We all remember the political, spiritual, and aesthetic horrors of the late 1960s and how they nearly destroyed the cultural fabric of our great nation.
That line could alienate members of your audience who think differently of the late ’60s, or who aren’t even old enough to remember that era.
Arrange your speech coherently
Even though certain topics are more widely known about than others, only a portion of a given audience will be as versed in the details as you: the person giving a speech on said topic. Therefore, the speech should be arranged in a manner that makes the topic perfectly understandable to the layman. No confusing leaps between different points in time, or cross–references between unrelated minutia; keep everything organized so that one point evolves into the next, and everything ties to the underlying message.
Wrap up your speech on a memorable note
Nothing beats a commanding entrance like a grand exit. The ending of your speech should be the culmination of your time on stage; the mic drop of the evening. That high, final note can be achieved with a closing line that causes people to think. As your speech is about to wrap, briefly summarize your main points to reinforce the message, and then end things with a statement that challenges everyone in the room to apply the message to their own situations in life.