Article Category: Speechwriting

Speechwriting Hocus Pocus: Summoning Your Magical Powers

For many of us, the appeal of writing a speech falls somewhere down there between getting a speeding ticket and being audited.

But take heart! You’re in a very powerful position as a speechmaker, and that’s a good place to be. A well-written speech can drive sales, deepen commitment, motivate hearts and minds, and even change the world. It can be magic.

Now, you may not feel very powerful as a speechwriter, especially if you don’t do it often. But the truth is, you already have some magic speechwriting powers at your disposal, and you don’t need to spend seven years at Hogwarts to learn how to use them.

This isn’t a laundry list of the things you should put in a speech; rather, I hope it will serve as an encouragement of your overall abilities and a reminder of what can be the elegant simplicity of this crazy creative process we call speechwriting.

Your Magic Speechwriting Powers

In addition to the power of the pen (okay, that one was a gimme), you can summon these communication powers the next time you need to write a speech.

The Power of Planning

The best investment you can make in any speech is doing some preliminary research about your audience. Ask some basic questions like:

  • Who will you (or your speaker) be addressing?
    Students, lawyers, a trade association, marketing managers, a sales conference?
  • Why will that audience be there?
    Have they chosen to attend or is it a mandated event?
  • What will they expect to hear?
    A pep rally, a pink slipping, a recap of the year’s accomplishments, a challenge to meet bold new goals?

These are objective questions that should be easy to answer. But it’s shocking how many writers and speakers don’t take the time to do this homework. Trust me. It will make your writing so much easier!

A well-written speech can drive sales, deepen commitment, motivate hearts and minds, and even change the world.

There’s one question every audience member asks at every speech in every venue: “What’s in it for me?” Build your speech around the answer to that question and you’ll be six steps ahead of many writers and speakers.

The Power of Passion

“They may not remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel”

That’s the golden rule of speechwriting. You may communicate plenty of data, words, and numbers to your audience, but is that the most effective way to connect with them?

Not according to business communication expert John Sturtevant:

“Most people despise data and crave context. Your job as a communicator is to show your [audience] why what you think is so vitally important, is so vitally important to them.”

David Murray, editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, agrees:

“[A great speech is] an authentic attempt by one person to make an audience understand something that’s important to all involved… whether that’s about healthcare, stained-glass, free trade, dog-fighting, or antique Cadillacs.”

Any subject worth getting up and talking about has some kind of passion behind it. Find it – and hang on to it – and you’ve taken the first step toward writing an effective and compelling speech.

The Power of Pretending

You can’t eat dinner before you cook it. You don’t review a book before you read it. Yet when it comes to writing, many of us tend to start editing before we even compose our first sentence.

There’s one question every audience member asks at every speech in every venue: “What’s in it for me?” Build your speech around the answer to that question and you’ll be six steps ahead of many writers and speakers.

This is not a healthy habit. Don’t cut your passion off at the pass!

When you start to write, pretend you can say whatever you want. Unleash your imagination in the beginning of the process, where anything goes. This is especially important if you work in a large organization where the legal eagles and compliance vultures will start to circle as soon as you submit your first draft.

I always start by writing down what I’m feeling, not just what I’m thinking – and the less articulate, politically correct, and grammatically pristine, the better. For example, if I’m writing a speech about education reform, the first few sentences I type might read like this:

“Our schools suck. WTF? Lot of great teachers but need to be able to ID them. Tons of research… Shouldn’t be this hard. Old-school thinking won’t create new schools. We HAVE to fix this!”

Of course I’m not going to submit that for anyone’s approval. But it keeps me honest about the passion that needs to drive the speech. I keep those words at the top of the draft until it has enough meat on its bones that I know the spine of the speech can support itself.

Throw down that wad of essence first, in its rawest form, with its bedhead and morning breath and all its burps and farts. Save the clean-up for later.

The Power of Plain

You don’t need $10 words to make a big impression. Clear language communicates best. That generally means short words and short sentences.  Flowery language might read nicely on paper, but it can get tangled up in people’s heads when they hear it out loud.

And while you’re at it, keep the speech short as well. Remember Mark Twain’s observation: “Few sinners are saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon.”

The Power of Permission

Don’t be shy about asking for what you need, whether it’s research help, access to the person you may be writing for, or basic questions about the venue and logistics.

If you’re worried that you might appear ignorant or incompetent (you won’t, but you might feel that way), try couching your request in terms of its benefit to the other person: “I know you want this speech to be great. So do I. Here’s what I need to make it great.”

Perils Lurking Around Every Corner…

Of course, we must beware the perils that can lurk around every corner, such as:

The Peril of Presumption

In a rush, it’s often tempting to cut corners by making assumptions about what your audience knows or thinks. Don’t. Better to ask a question you think you know the answer to, than to act on an assumption that turns out to be faulty.

The Peril of Proliferation

Keep your speech centered around one or two main ideas. Don’t let ancillary topics and tangents multiply like rabbits!

A speech is not a book report, a grocery list, a thesis, or any kind of document whose purpose is to store and serve data. A speech is meant to inspire. To do that, keep your speech centered around one or two main ideas. Don’t let ancillary topics and tangents multiply like rabbits!

The Peril of Pride

Of course, we all want to be proud of our work. But don’t cloak yourself in so much pride that you can’t let some things go or change them in service of the overall speech. Read your speech out loud to a trusted colleague or friend and listen to their feedback. (The less they know about your topic, the better – that’s a good litmus test of the clarity of your idea.)

Super-Sized? No, Pocket-Sized!

An awful lot to remember? Okay, then for my last trick, I will magically transform all the suggestions above into a pocket-sized piece of advice: Plan, find your passion, think big, keep it clear, ask for what you need.

One last tip: If you are feeling overwhelmed and under-qualified, you are likely biting off too much with your speech. Remember to KISS – keep it simple, speechwriter! That’s the best way to make magic on the page as well as the stage.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
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Comments icon3 Comments

  1. Enjoyed the article. The who, what, and why are definitely great questions to ask before starting a speech. I like to take two people who represent the audience and prepare the speech directly for them.

  2. I agree – the surest reason for a failed presentation is lack of clear objectives. All speakers should begin by answering these questions – nicely put!

  3. Good suggestions, Allison, especially as regards learning about the audience. In addition to probing the event planner or host, ask if you can call a few attendees in advance. You could ask questions like, “What are your challenges [as relate to the topic]?” and “What are you hoping to get out of my presenation?” You may uncover some additional gems to add to your presentation. Thanks for sharing.

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Devinder Lamsar @dlamsar — Nov 22nd, 2010

Throw down that wad of essence 1st, in its rawest form, w/ its bedhead & morning breath & all its burps & farts: #writing


rachel mackles @rmackles — Dec 2nd, 2010

RT @6minutes Speechwriting Hocus Pocus: Summoning Your Magical Powers


David Newman @dnewman — Jan 4th, 2011

The keys to magical speechwriting, via Allison Wood: #speaking


Wendy Cherwinski @wendycherwinski — Mar 30th, 2011

And sometimes an incantation is just what’s needed. Summon your magical powers to achieve speechwriting hocus pocus


Michael Gladkoff @wordnerds — Mar 30th, 2011

RT @6minutes Speechwriting Hocus Pocus: Summoning Your Magical Powers

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