The Speechwriter

Writing a good speech takes time, skill and preparation. That’s where speechwriters come in, often to draft, draft and redraft.

How should I go about writing an effective speech?

First you need to know why you are doing the speech, what is your purpose? For example, do you need to propose a toast, win a debate, launch a ship… etc. You want to know the questions the audience is interested in. You need to think about how you’re going to have something in your speech for everybody. Once you’ve done that the rest is easy!

How should I start?

Once you have your purpose, you then need a structure – a way of keeping all your words together in a framework, perhaps a story, or a puzzle that you go on to solve. Focus on getting your audience’s attention at the start and then trying to keep that attention steady throughout. This is tricky but there are plenty of ways to keep people’s ears pricked up.

Why do people often say things in 3s while delivering a speech?

The list of 3 is something that is used in Celtic languages as an embodiment of wisdom. We really don’t know why lists of 3 work. It’s a bit like the start of a race, 3, 2, 1 and go. The end of the list cues an opportunity for applause. An example of a list of 3 in recent times was Tony Blair’s priorities for the government in the run-up to the 1997 general election:

Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you, education, education, education.

Tony Blair

And, guess what… a round of applause followed. You can have lists of sounds, lists of words, lists of phrases – just don’t overdo it.

What is rhetoric and how do rhetorical devices work in a speech?

Rhetoric is simply the art of speaking impressively. Rhetorical devices work to gain the audience’s attention, give emphasis, cue a reaction and help the audience remember what is said. So, welcoming the finalists in the 2008 Masters Snooker tournament, instead of just introducing them as Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Selby, it was much more effective to say ‘Rocket Ronnie’ and the ‘Jester from Leicester’. It sounds better, gives an intriguing image and is memorable. This is rhetoric.

Here’s another example. Almost all good speeches finish in the future. So Barack Obama’s inauguration speech ended with the image of delivering the ‘gift of freedom’ to future generations. Again, this is rhetoric.

Should the speaker have notes?

A full script can make you look a bit more prepared. Without a script you can look more spontaneous, especially for a small speech. I personally think the worst thing of all is to have a handful of notes or postcards, as it looks fiddly and amateurish.

What kind of role does a speechwriter play in the final outcome of a speech?

Ah, it’s the speaker who is most important – it is he/she the audience have come to hear. Generally, major speakers have one speechwriter who they work closely with. As a speechwriter, I regard myself as a rent-a-brain, someone who tries to get in the mind of the speaker and can do some of the thinking for them. I go into a sort of trance to hear their voice in my head so that what I write sounds like them.

I’m lucky to have worked with extraordinary speakers who always make the speech their own. So all you can really do as a speechwriter is to help them come up with material that might support their case. But when you’ve got a speaker who is doing five or six speeches a week with each speech being a couple of thousand words, it is hard work, and they need help.

So who’s a good speech maker?

Barack Obama is great. But if you look closely at his inauguration speech, the audience wanted to be involved in that moment of history and wanted him to reflect their sense of excitement. His first words were:

My fellow citizens, I stand here today humbled by the task before us

Barack Obama

If he had just changed that ‘I’ into ‘we to say, “My fellow citizens, we stand here today humbled by the task before us,” the crowd would have erupted.

On the other hand Lord Spencer’s speech at Princess Diana’s funeral, started:

I stand before you today the representative of a family in grief, in a country in mourning, before a world in shock

Lord Spencer

We were all included in an incredibly electric way. He used a simple structure, going up a scale in – you’ve got it – a list of 3.

Top Tips on Speechwriting:

  • Know your purpose.
  • Finish ‘in the future’.
  • Use rhetorical devices – but not too many.

By The Speaker  http://www.bbc.co.uk/speaker/

Interview with Susan Jones