Article Category: Speechwriting

8 Speechwriting Lessons You Can Learn from Songwriters

Thomas Carlyle once observed:

Music is well said to be the speech of angels.

You can make your speechwriting sing by learning lessons from songwriters. By applying these eight songwriting techniques, you will get your audiences to virtually tap their feet, nod their heads, and even hum along to your message.

  1. Triad
  2. Refrain
  3. Cadence
  4. Harmony
  5. Rhythm
  6. Rhyme
  7. Echo
  8. Sound Effects

#1: Triad

Have you ever tried to dance to a waltz? (Or, at least seen celebrities try on ABC’s hit show Dancing with the Stars?) Someone counted for you: one, two, three… one, two, three. Soon, your klutzy steps flowed more smoothly. You had the beat. You had the rhythm. You had the flow.

The three-beat measure stimulated you. The three-beat measure motivated you. And the three-beat measure exhilarated you. The three-beat measure is well-ingrained in our daily lives, rhythmically sliding off our tongues and into the ears of others:

  • Wine, women, and song
  • Butcher, baker, and candlestick maker
  • Tall, dark, and handsome
  • Hook, line, and sinker
  • Hop, skip, and a jump
  • Beg, borrow, and steal
  • Signed, sealed, and delivered
  • Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In music, a triad is composed of three notes that make a chord. Applying the same concept to speechwriting, think of a triad as a group of three words or three phrases used together to increase memorability and impact with a rhythmic 1-2-3 beat. Add even more impact with alliteration where each of the three words begins with the same letter.

Consider these examples:

  • Effective speakers share ideas with impact, insight and intensity. They engage listeners with courage, conviction and confidence.
  • Effective speakers convey their point of view confidently, cogently and convincingly. They sew their thoughts with the threads of innovation, inspiration and imagination.
  • Effective speakers enrich, enlighten and entertain their audiences. They strive for compatibility, capability and credibility.

Read more about this technique in How to Use the Rule of Three in Your Speeches.

#2: Refrain

In music, a refrain is a regularly recurring phrase or verse. So too in speechwriting. A refrain is a short phrase used in a series of (at least) three sentences. This short repetitive phrase is more strategic to the message and more memorable to the audience than repetition.

Consider the message strategy and memorability in this example delivered at the 2004 Republican Convention by then-First Lady Laura Bush:

Abraham Lincoln didn’t want to go to war, but he knew saving the union required it. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t want to go to war, but he knew defeating tyranny demanded it. And my husband didn’t want to go to war, but he knew the safety and security of America and the world depended on it.

You can also use just two words to develop the refrain as Arnold Schwarzenegger did at the 2004 Republican Convention:

America is back.
Back from the attack on our homeland.
Back from the attack on our economy.
Back from the attack on our way of life.

Finally, consider former President Ronald Reagan speaking on D-Day in 1984:

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next.

#3: Cadence

Cadence is a repetitive phrase that begins at least 6 consecutive sentences. The exaggerated repetition drums the words into the ear for greater rhythmic impact and memorability.

Consider this passage from Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech:

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring
from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring
from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring
from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring
from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that.
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring
from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring
from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

Feel the fight from Winston Churchill’s speech given to the British Parliament in June, 1940:

We shall fight on the seas and oceans.
We shall fight with growing confidence and strength in the air.
We shall fight to defend our land, whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches.
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets.
We shall fight in the hills. We will never surrender!”

Finally, consider the cadence in the words of Lyndon Johnson in August, 1964 as he accepts a nomination for President of the United States:

Most Americans want medical care for older citizens. And so do I.
Most Americans want fair and stable prices for our farmers. And so do I.
Most Americans want a decent home in a decent neighborhood for all. And so do I.
Most Americans want an education for every child to the limit of his ability. And so do I.
Most Americans want a job for every man who wants to work. And so do I.
Most Americans want a victory in our war against poverty. And so do I.
Most Americans want a continuing, expanding and growing prosper. And so do I.

#4: Harmony

In music, harmony is pleasing to the ear, a concordance of sounds, and a balance that beholds. In speechwriting, you can employ a harmonizing sentence structure to balance the beginning and the ending of a series of (at least) three sentences.

Think of putting your sentences on a teeter totter: whatever weight you put on one side must be balanced by weight on the other side. This technique is more formally known as parallel structure.

Shakespeare’s used this teeter-totter, harmony technique in Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice (Act III, Scene 1):

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Here is another example of harmony adapted from Super Bowl winning Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy in 2006.

Talent is God-given. Be helpful.
Praise is Man-given. Be thankful.
Conceit is Self-given. Be mindful.

And finally, another example of harmony from one of my own speeches concerning making deadlines.

Prisoners serve it. Time.
Musicians mark it. Time
And historians record it. Time

#5: Rhythm

You can change the tempo of your speech much like a songwriter changes the tempo from an easy-going 4 beats per measure (waltz) to a brassy 8 beats per measure or more (jazz) depending on your intended message. Use at least five verbs in a repetitive sentence structure to generate a recurring beat that resonates with your audience.

Consider the following examples of verb-driven, toe-tapping rhythmic speechwriting. First, another example from Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice Act III, Scene I:

Hath not a Jew fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter as a Christian is?

President John F. Kennedy used this rhythmic technique in his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961:

We will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, and oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.

Finally, consider the words of Reverend Billy Graham:

Humor helps us overlook the unbecoming, understand the unconventional, tolerate the unpleasant, overcome the unexpected, and outlast the unbearable.

#6: Rhyme

Rhyme is a proven method of building rhythm as every cheerleader, poet, and songwriter knows.

Consider the opening words of William Ernest Henley’s poem, “Invictus”:

Out of the Night that covers me,
black as the pit from pole to pole.
I thank whatever gods maybe
for my unconquerable soul.

Effective speechwriters use rhyme in a sequence to generate a rhythmic momentum that drives greater emphasis and meaning to the intended message .

Consider this 13-sentence example of rhyme:

Architects cannot renovate it.
Businesses cannot incorporate it.
Churches cannot inculcate it.
Developers cannot innovate it.
Engineers cannot calculate it.
Governments cannot legislate it.
Judges cannot adjudicate it.
Lawyers cannot litigate it.
Manufacturers cannot fabricate it.
Politicians cannot appropriate it.
Scientist cannot formulate it.
Technicians cannot generate it.
Only you can orchestrate it.

You might also use rhyme to build momentum, meaning, and memorability like this:

The legal department focuses on liability.
The financial department focuses on visibility.
The manufacturing department focuses on capability.
The marketing department focuses on availability.
The advertising department focuses on visibility.
And the public relations department focuses on credibility.

#7: Echo

You can employ the audience to help you build more rhythm in your speech and provoke your audience to echo a key phrase in your message.

Consider this example which the late Senator Ted Kennedy invoked at the 1988 Democratic Convention to chide then Vice President George Bush for distancing himself from then President Ronald Reagan’s decisions on controversial issues. Notice how the rhythmic sentence structure stirs the audience reaction. By the third or fourth iteration, the audience erupts, echoing the phrase – “where was George?”

The vice‐president says he wasn’t there – or can’t recall – or never heard – as the Administration secretly plotted to sell arms to Iran. So when that monumental mistake was being made, I think it is fair to ask: where was George?

The vice‐president says he never saw – or can’t remember – or didn’t comprehend – the intelligence report on General Noriega’s involvement in the cocaine cartel. So when that report was being prepared and discussed, I think it is fair to ask: where was George?

The vice‐president claims he cares about the elderly – but evidently he didn’t know, or wasn’t there, when the Administration tried repeatedly to slash Social Security and Medicare. So when those decisions were being made, I think it is fair to ask: where was George?

And the vice‐president, who now speaks fervently of civil rights, apparently wasn’t around or didn’t quite hear when the Administration was planning to weaken voting rights, give tax breaks to segregated schools, and veto the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988. So when all those assaults were being mounted, I think it is fair to ask : where was George?

#8: Sound Effects

Use a word for its sound effect such as “crash” or “boom” or “crunch” to express more feeling and to bring inanimate objects to life such as “squealing” tires, “groaning” gates, “whining” siren, “whistling” train,” gurgling” creek, or “screaming” wind.

Known formally as onomatopoeia, this technique focuses on words where the sound of the word suggests its meaning such as slap, or slash, or growl. Look for verbs in your speech and see if you can replace at least one verb with onomatopoeia. Instead of saying “the carpenter pounded the nail,” say “the carpenter’s hammer banged out a steady rat-a-tat-tat.”

Here’s an example from a college student. She uses the sound effect of a sizzling frying pan put under running water to recall diving into a swimming pool on a hot summer day:

As the sweat dripped from my brow I ran quick as lightening, threw on my swim suit. Ran bare footed on the hot scalding cement. Through the brown crispy grass. Climbed over the edge. And jumped in! As soon as my hot feet touched the cool water, tsssssssssss! I was in heaven.

Your Challenge

By applying these eight songwriting techniques, you will more fully engage your audience, energize your message, and enhance your memorability.

Your challenge is to use one or more of these techniques the next time you step up to the podium and you will more readily keep your audience turned on and tuned in. Note-ably.

For further reading, you may be interested in John Watkis’ blog, where he also uses music as a speechwriting metaphor.

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Comments icon8 Comments

  1. michelle says:

    Wow – what a gift this post is. The abundant examples make application of your tips easy. Well done – and thank you!!

  2. Gene Grindle says:

    Great Examples

  3. Jim Harvey says:

    Peter, a well thought through article with real interest for the speechwriter and presenter. Thank you.

  4. Dorothy says:

    As an English teacher and story teller, I love this songwriter’s guide to public speaking. Pure genius, and useful to any type of presentation.

  5. enrique says:

    Been wandering for years on using songwriting techniques for for speech writing.Good to know it can be done.Thank you so much for this.

  6. manu says:

    All the techniques are wonderful. It will definitely help everyone to be a good speaker as well as writer. It will definitely improve presentation skills also. From the bottom of my heart I would like to thank you.

  7. Jennifer says:

    The “two word” refrain by Laura Bush is actually a 6 word refrain: “back from the attack on our…”

    Cadence is incorrectly defined.

    A waltz is 3 beats per measure, not 4.

    The same word repeated 13 times is not a rhyme of itself.

    “The carpenter’s hammer banged” is onomatopoeia. The nonsense syllables “rat-a-tat-tat” are not.

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