Everything You Need to Know About Writing a Speech
Editor’s Note: This originally appeared in a Competitive Edge video written and hosted by the late Steve Schroeder, former advisor to the Phi Beta Chapter at the College of DuPage in Illinois, where he was a professor of speech communication. It has been edited for length.
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As a leader, you know how important it is to express yourself clearly and effectively. Yet what many people do not recognize is that the art of crafting a speech is very different from other forms of communication, especially writing. In a live speech, you have only one chance for your ideas to be understood and remembered.
Luckily, there is one major similarity between writing a paper and creating a speech — the basic structural format of introduction, body, and conclusion. As we explore these components, note the elements that may differ from your writing style. They may seem cumbersome, unnecessary, even irrational, but trust me, you want to make every effort for your one chance at speechmaking to be memorable.
First, Get Their Attention
Let’s start with the introduction — the first words out of your mouth. Think about your audience for a moment. Will you have their full attention right off the bat? Do some of them secretly wish they could be somewhere else? This is why you shouldn’t start right off with a dull, dry, boring topic statement. Instead, use an attention getter — something that will not only grab their focus but will also introduce your topic.
Use a shocking or intriguing statement, a story, humor, or a thought-provoking quotation. But be careful — make sure that, whatever you use, it relates to your topic. You don’t want to throw people off with something funny or provoking that has nothing to do with your subject at hand. It will only confuse your audience and perhaps even lessen your credibility.
Once your audience knows your topic, they may not be convinced that it is something worthy of their attention. They may think, “What’s in it for me? Why should I care?” That’s why the next step in your introduction should be a topic justification. Take a sentence or two to tell the audience why they will benefit from your speech or how the information will be useful to them.
With their attention focused, now’s the time to engage in this classic strategy: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them. In other words, end your introduction with a preview of your main points.
Imagine this — you are in one car, your friends are in another. You are all going to the same destination. You don’t know how to get there, but your friends do, and you’re going to follow them. Then their car speeds through signals, takes turns too quickly, and you lose them — AND they are not answering their cell phones. Frustrating, huh? If you at least knew the name of the streets you were supposed to use, it would be easier to catch up with them, right?
Well, that’s what a preview does — give each one of the main points in the body of your speech a clear street name, or signpost, and let your audience know in what order you will be travelling down those streets. This way, in case the audience loses you, they have a better chance of catching up.
Next, Get Detailed
With your audience’s attention garnered and focused in your introduction, it’s time to hit them with all the nitty-gritty details in the body of your speech. But it’s not enough to just list your details haphazardly. Let’s consider both the structural and content elements around which your ideas will be framed.
Structurally, use a clear organizational format, much like the ones you have hopefully already learned in previous English composition classes. Formats like topical, categorical, spatial, chronological, comparison/contrast, and problem/solution work great in both written and oral communication.
Don’t forget to provide each main point with a clear signpost. You will use these not only in your preview, but also for another structural element — transitions. Paragraph breaks are what usually signal to a reader that the topic has changed. However, listeners can rarely “see” paragraphs; instead, you need to provide those paragraph breaks verbally.
Here’s a simple strategy — create a sentence that combines both the signpost of the main point you are leaving and the signpost of the main point you are entering. It can be as basic as, “Now that we’ve talked about (my previous main point), let’s talk about (my next main point).”
Within each of your main points, don’t just list your facts. Provide illustration that will clarify your ideas and make them more memorable. Stories or narratives are a great way to not only detail your point but draw in your audience’s focus — use comparisons to experiences that your audience has had. But perhaps the most effective form of support is personal examples. By showing a little of yourself, you will not only clarify your ideas for your audience, but you will also build goodwill with them.
Finally, End with a Bang
So, you’ve gotten through all of your details. Are you done? Not if you want to effectively impress those ideas in the minds of your audience members. That’s why you should always follow the body of your speech with a concise and memorable conclusion.
Start your conclusion with a review of main points. It’s similar to your preview, but this time, you’re doing it to help your audience remember your ideas, not just follow them. Just do the signposts — no need to re-state every piece of detail. Hopefully, if your audience can remember your main point signposts, the details of the journey will fall into place as well. Then you can “end with a bang” with what I call a lasting thought.
Many of the same devices I suggested for your attention getter can also be used here, but their use has two different goals. First (and most obviously), the lasting thought should clearly end your speech, hopefully without saying, “Uh, I’m done” or “The end.” Second, it should provide impact. Think about commercial slogans. They usually end the commercial and provide an instant image of the product.
If I say, “Just Do It,” hopefully the Nike “swoosh” pops into your brain. Craft your ending in the same concise, memorable way, and give the audience something by which to remember your speech. In fact, tying back to your attention getter not only is an effective way to end but can bring your speech full circle.