It’s that time of year—time for writing, re-writing, and honing speeches for competition. As an avid fan of the platform speech, I wrote and delivered nine platform speeches in four different platform categories during my years in speech and debate competition. By the end of it all, I’d learned that quality speech-writing takes an intense cognitive and emotional investment, somewhat akin to Churchill’s description of blood, sweat, and tears. We all can benefit from the encouragement of those who have been there before. So for all you hard-working speech writers out there, here are five pro-tips to aid your master process:
1) Weave a master story.
If you’ve ever taken a writing or speech class, you know that any good speech/essay must have a thesis—a cohesive point that you are making throughout all of the material that you present. But my advice is to take your speechwriting one step further: aim for a cohesive story. For me, a cohesive story usually came through a powerful analogy which illustrated my thesis and which was woven throughout the entire speech. For example, in a biographical narrative speech, I opened with Shakespeare’s famous “all the world’s a stage” quote and wove throughout the entire speech the language of crowds and stages. Throughout, I unfolded the point that the subject of my speech was learning to perform for an audience of one—God alone. I ended with the challenge,
“Our world today is a stage, and we truly are players on it… So I ask you this question—what defines you? Who are you playing for? The time has come to take our eyes off the crowd and play our lives for the defining audience of One.”
2) Write with delivery in mind.
One of the biggest mistakes an aspiring speech-writer can make is to write a speech the same way she writes an essay. Speeches are not essays. Great speeches often included fragments, contractions, and repetition. Speeches rely greatly on pausing and vocal emphasis to clarify ideas, which means written grammar is not a priority.
When writing a speech, sit somewhere where you can talk outloud to yourself and test the sound of the words you are writing. I often even wrote passages of my speeches with specific hand motions and body movements in mind. When you write a sentence, imagine which words you might emphasize and where you might pause, and adjust accordingly.
Take this example. In one persuasive speech, I included this sentence:
“Viewing tragedies only through statistics and percentages causes us to forget a simple, powerful fact—the fact that one hurting person, one victim, one single life, is of inestimable value.”
In an essay, this sentence would be confusing and have serious grammatical issues. But it worked great in a speech, because the pausing and vocal emphasis made the meaning perfectly clear.
3) Aim for a physical reaction.
It may sound harsh, but I’ll say it: if your audience does not physically react to your speech, your speech needs improvement. Four of my nine platform speeches—including the 1st place and runner up national persuasive speeches—routinely caused the judges to cry. Making judges cry in and of itself was never a specific goal of mine; rather, I aimed to convey true, meaningful, heartfelt emotion that the judges would feel. Further, two of my platform speeches routinely resulted in laughter, or at the very least, lots of smiles. Other telling physical responses include grimacing, raising eyebrows, and shaking or nodding heads. An ideal speech should make a typical audience member physically react in multiple ways, because the speech contains a range of emotions and surprising/interesting information. Physical reaction is a sign that the audience is invested in your speech, and it also helps cement your speech into your audience’s mind.
[Side note: it’s really not that hard to evoke tears from a judge. Expressing vulnerability and genuine emotion in your speech are the two keys to evoking tears. Humans often cry out of empathy, so if they can connect with you personally, their hearts are likely to open. People are often shocked when I tell them that during my last year of speech competition, roughly a quarter of my judges cried…in IMPROMPTU. But I am convinced it happened because I was not afraid to be vulnerable and to share heartfelt emotion. Humans are wired to connect with that.]
4) Transport the listener.
A key concept in academic persuasion literature is transportation. Transportation involves “transporting” your listener into your story world through the effective use of imagery and emotion. A successfully transported audience forgets they are listening to a speech competition, because they have fully entered into the story you are telling. Overall, transported audiences are more vulnerable to persuasion.
So how do you transport a listener? Careful imagery, pausing, and eye contact can do wonders. Also, appeal to more than one of the five senses of your audience in your descriptions and story-telling. Make them feel like they are right there in the situation you are describing. Here is an example of attempted transportation that formed the conclusion of my 2012 persuasive speech.
“At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I remember an area enclosed in very high brick walls, covered from top to bottom with small framed photographs, simple personal pictures of those who were victims of the Holocaust. Beautiful people—a mother and child, a bride and groom. As I stared at the wall, I longed to take down a picture—to save and protect the person inside the frame.
You and I stand today in front of just such a wall—a wall of suffering that stretches eons, and is filled with the faces of those who need our help, our touch, or our protection…You and I cannot give up. Join me, in emptying that wall one picture at a time. For though we cannot carry one-hundred pictures, all of us can carry one.”
5) Write from your heart, not your head.
This concept is best expressed with a story. My final year of speech and debate competition, I wrote a persuasive speech from my head. It was a technically good speech and featured careful research and good storytelling and organization. But I was not excited to deliver it. My heart did not rise with the words I was speaking.
I took it to the first qualifier of the year, and due to its technical quality, it I actually won first place. But I still did not like the speech. By the next tournament, any small excitement I had regarding the speech had dwindled. I took fourth place, but the speech felt heartless. Before my last qualifier, I threw the speech away and wrote a new one. This one flowed out of me: it truly came from my heart, and I cried when I wrote it. I actually did not think it was as technically good as the first one, but it moved people because it moved me. Three months later, that speech had won nationals.
Maybe that sounds crazy. Who throws away a speech after winning a qualifier with it? I would say everyone should if you know the speech was not written from your heart. In public speaking, heart trumps technical prowess 99% of the time. Find something you care about and write that speech from your heart.
I wish you all the best as you return to the blood, sweat, and tears of speech writing. Don’t hold back—a world of listeners is waiting to hear your heart.