Speech Writing Basics
Knowing how to organize your speech is the most under-rated and misunderstood skills for speech writing. A well-organized speech often has its organization unnoticed, but a disorganized speech is a guaranteed disaster. Some organizational techniques can make a speech stand out, but before we get there, it is important to have a basic understanding of speech organization.
If you are writing your speech for yourself, think in terms of blocks rather than a full manuscript. Modular speech writing enables you to add and subtract based on feedback from the audience. It will also allow you to rework or adapt a single speech to different scenarios quite easily. If you are writing the speech for someone else, a manuscript is most useful. The first thing to know about speech writing is the basic component parts of a speech that should be included. This post provides an overview and starting tips to get you on your way.
Speech writing: Introduction
The introduction is the most important part of your speech. The audience pays a lot of attention to the introduction, and it is the first impression the audience has of you. Everyone is watching you at the start of your speech. If you do well, you create goodwill, and the audience will pay more attention and give you more respect. If you do poorly in the introduction, you may never recover. Therefore, it is critical you organize the opening properly.
If you are only going to write one part of your speech, then that should be the introduction. It will pay the most dividends. I spend more time preparing and practicing my introduction than any other part of a speech.
There are three fundamental things you want to write in the introduction. First, you want to sell your speech. You need to provide some rationale for the audience to continue listening. Second, you want to sell yourself. Why should they listen to you? What are your qualifications, experiences, insights? Finally, you need to explain the topic of your talk.
1. Draw the attention of the audience.
2. Establish your credibility
3. Lay out the thesis of your speech.
There are other things you can write in the introduction, but if you don’t accomplish these three things the rest of your speech writing doesn’t matter.
How to Organize the Body
The largest part of the speech is called the body. A well-written body has three parts: main points, sub-points, and transitions.
If done correctly, you should have explained what the speech was about in the introduction. That was an obligation to cover certain material in the speech. The main points are the major topics you want to discuss to fulfill that requirement. They are not repetitions of the “thesis” of your speech. If your speech were a book, the main points would be the chapters.
There are numerous ways to organize the main points within the body of the speech. The most basic of those organizational patterns is topical. When you organize a speech by topic, the order of the main points doesn’t matter too much. For example, if you are giving a speech welcoming new employees to your organization. You could organize the following main points topically: we work hard (professional expectations), we play hard (social opportunities), and we rest hard (personal life matters). The division of main points into professional, social, and personal is the hallmark of a topical organizational pattern. I recommend placing the most important topics first and last to take advantage of the recency and primacy effects.
One of the biggest mistakes people make with main points is having too many or too few. Three is the standard number of main points, but that rule is not a written-in-stone. But, if you have only one main point, that main point would be a thesis. If you have more than five main points, consider that your audience will not remember all of them. That is a best case scenario. The worst case is that your audience becomes bored with a perceived lack of focus and stops listening to you. If you need to use more than five, then either consolidate them into broader categories or reconsider the scope of the speech. The perception of disorganization is a major cause for the audience to lose attention or stop listening altogether.
The sub-points are the substance of your speech. They are called sub-points because they fall under and support each main point, but you should think of them as evidence and explanation for your main points. The amount of information you include in your sub-points is entirely conditional on your topic and your time limits. I always suggest having more to say than you need, so that you can adjust based on how the rest of your speech is going or how much time you have. I once gave a speech that had a large audience but a short time limit. I’m usually long-winded, so I sped through the first half of my speech only to discover I was going to end faster than I wanted. Luckily, I had researched and prepared more information than I thought I would have time to deliver. It pays to be flexible.
Transitions are statements that let the audience know you are finished with one main point and moving on to the next main point or conclusion. Don’t overlook these important parts of every speech. They inform your audience that you are moving along and give them a sense of where you are in the speech.
Transitions should be transitive at the very least: “Now that you understand what we do here, I’m going to explain how you can have fun too.” It is also wholly appropriate to be literal: “Second, you should have fun” Transitions are easy to do but also easy to forget until its too late.
The most powerful words in a speech are, “In conclusion.” The most bored of audiences will perk up when they hear those magic words. If you invoke the power of those words, you better mean them. Audiences take their time very seriously, don’t taunt them with finishing your speech if you don’t intend actually to finish.
Conclusions are harder than they seem. Ever hear a speech with that awkward pause at the end when people are not sure if they should start clapping? That’s the result of a poorly planned conclusion. It should carry a sense of finality. One technique I like to use is circling back to the introduction. If I started with a story about Abraham Lincoln, for example, I might conclude by circling back to the story again. Another thing that adds finality is a call to action. A call to action tells the audience what you want from them: a vote, a lifestyle change, a purchase. Calls to action are most appropriate for persuasive speeches but also signals closure.
It is appropriate to remind the audience of your topic and the main points, but it is not appropriate to bring up new information. Stick to reviewing or bringing everything back together. And, depending on the audience and the situation, I always like to end with a thank you.