Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Seven Ways to Write a Better Speech

I don't pretend to be a great public speaker; I think I had more nerve as a 14-year-old debater than I have now! But I was keenly motivated by the gleam of trophies in high school and I learned the tricks it takes to do reasonably well at speaking.

In later years, I also wrote speeches for industry leaders and CEOs. So when a friend emailed to request advice on how to write speeches, I decided to summarize the seven things I know.

1) Learn your time limit and calculate your word count. The average person speaks at somewhere between 125 and 150 words per minute. It's always better to speak more slowly than quickly. Thus, if you're speaking for 20 minutes, you want a total word count of about 2,500 words. Be careful! I once got the math wrong and saddled a good friend with a 48-minute speech when he was trying for 30!

2) If you have to speak for more than 30 minutes, be certain to work in some sort of interactive component. Invite questions or give the audience tasks to do. The TV and the Internet have ruined our ability to sit quietly and listen to a talking head for very long.

3) Divide the speech into five parts: an introduction, point 1, point 2, point 3 and a conclusion. Or, in other words, tell people what you're going to tell them, tell them your points and then wrap up by telling them what you just said. This format is adaptable to a speech of just about any length but I'd divide a 20-minute speech as follows:

Introduction: 2 minutes (250 words)
Point 1: 5 minutes (625 words)
Point 2: 5 minutes (625 words)
Point 3: 5 minutes (625 words)
Conclusion: 3 minutes (375 words)

If you're thin on ideas for the three points, consider using a mindmap to help you. (Anyone who subscribes to my free newsletter receives an ebook on mindmapping at no charge.)

4) Tell stories or give examples. If you have a story to illustrate each of your three points, so much the better. Stories are "sticky" — that is, people remember them. Unless you're a scientist, always prefer sticky stories to statistics.

5) Employ humor — but use it carefully and build it into the subject of your speech. I hate opening jokes that are unrelated to the actual speech topic — they feel so fake and tacked on. You want humor to be organic — that is, related to the topic you're covering. Also be sure to avoid any comments that could be considered even remotely vulgar, or sexist, racist, ageist, etc. But if you're one of those people who can't quite pull off a joke, don't try. No humor is better than lame humor or bad delivery.

6) Read the speech aloud. Make sure the language is easy to say — even if you're writing the speech for someone else. Say it out loud many times, so you can check to ensure there are no stumbling blocks. For example, the line "a lower-cost alternative to traditional plans" is harder to say than it looks (try it!). Change that kind of language, fast.

7) Be yourself. Barack Obama and Winston Churchill are/were both excellent speakers. They're also totally different. While you can gain pointers from observing great speakers, you need to be true to yourself. Don't try to be someone you're not! And if you are writing a speech for someone else, it's important you spend significant time interviewing them and learning their speech patterns — as well as their stories. Are there any expressions that they use regularly? Can you work them into the speech?

Finally, as a kind of a P.S., let me say that I never use PowerPoint in my speeches or presentations. I know not everyone agrees with this philosophy — but most will concur that if you use PowerPoint you need to be skilled and practiced with it. It's not a good tool for beginners.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday April 8th 2009, 4:09 AM
Comment by: Bjorn H. Lindback (Barseback-Jaravallen Sweden)
Thanks Daphne,

Always great to share experience from other professionals. As a strategy advisor to corporate executives and their management teams I often find myself in the position to also communicate the strategies formulated to a wider audience, i.e. employees, partners et al.

I will definitely benefit from your thougths on speech writing!

Wishing you a nice Easter weekend, I remain with

Kind regards

Bjorn H. Lindback
Senior Partner & Adviser with XLNS Consulting Group, Sweden ( www.xlns.se).
Wednesday April 8th 2009, 11:47 AM
Comment by: Michael C.
Great tips!

Its easy to forget that to keep it simple, keep's it real.
Wednesday April 8th 2009, 5:30 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Is there a time vs word ratio calculus for us slow southern drawl speakers?
Wednesday April 8th 2009, 9:40 PM
Comment by: Kristin W. (Owatonna, MN)
I teach middle school communications and we do a fair amount of public speaking. Kids always struggle with speaking for the required time allotment. Your method for calculating the number of words needed is concrete and will be a great help!
Wednesday April 8th 2009, 11:11 PM
Comment by: Guido F.

My primary language is spanish. I have serious difficulties writing. My propblem is to use the correct prepositions. Daphne, please could recomend me a book which help me to solve this problem.

Guido Fonseca.
Thursday April 9th 2009, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your comments everyone!

Clarence, in terms of time-to-word ratio for people with a southern drawl, I'm not sure. I suggest you tape someone off the radio -- make sure it's someone who sounds as though they're speaking at just the right speed -- and then transcribe one minute's worth of their speech. You'll get your count that way. I suspect it will fall within the 125 to 150 wpm range, though...

Kristin, yes, use this with students. I teach debating to kids and it's like a magic formula to them.

Guido, my favourite book for prepositions is: English Prepositional Idioms by Frederick T Wood. (MacMillan Press, 1967) ISBN-10: 0333172159 It appears to be out of print now, but you should be able to find a copy from a place like Abebooks.com
Friday April 10th 2009, 10:27 AM
Comment by: Daniela (Roldan Argentina)
Thanks Daphne!

These tips are really helpful! I am an English teacher teaching Business English to pre-service and in company students. So your advice will help us with what we bear in mind to improve Presentation Skills.

Guido, my mother tongue is also Spanish and I usually have to cope with the same difficulty. There is a collocation dictionary we always consult: "Oxford Collocations" dictionary for students of English. You will find a full range of collocations. It is intended for productive use , most typically for help with writing. It is of great use not only to teachers, but also to students of English of upper-intermediate level and above and all who wish to write fluent and idiomatic English.

Daniela Pellegrini
Friday April 10th 2009, 6:27 PM
Comment by: Guido F.
Daniella P.

Thank you for your response to my concern.

Guido F.

Daphne G.

Thank you, I will buy the book and I'll follow your suggestions.

Guido F.
Wednesday April 22nd 2009, 1:10 PM
Comment by: William S. (Columbia, SC)
re:#5 Employ humor...

I have never written or given a speech but have spent many hours listening to speakers. I think that you're a bit stringent both on the length and implied purpose of the introduction.

Many speakers use the introduction not just as a preamble to the speech subject matter but also as a personal introduction. For example, a speaker to a civic club might begin with a >brief< personal background and include a joke or humorous story. While the humor may not pertain to the subject matter it will acquaint the audience with the speaker's style and serve as an "ice breaker" to let the audience relax.
Friday June 5th 2009, 12:30 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi William,

Sorry it's taken me so long to reply but I've been travelling and offline lately. Anyway, humour is a good idea if you are very skilled at it. But it's also the source of many potential problems.

1) I hate speeches that begin with tacked on, irrelevant jokes (eg: jokes about the city, family matters, the weather etc.) The best jokes are ALWAYS organic. That is, they come from the nature of subject matter itself and they don't feel integral -- they're linked to the whole speech.

2) You always run the triple risk of being sexist, racist or agist (and probably a few other "ists") when you add humour. Make sure you've vetted all your jokes VERY carefully!

3) You need excelllent timing to be able to deliver a joke. This requires lots of practice and some inherent skill.

None of these are reasons for forgoing humour, but they do make it challenging! An honest, sincere speech, with lots of stories but without humour is better than a badly delivered "funny" one. -daphne

PS: One exception to the above is speeches that are meant to be almost entirely humourous. I think her of Ellen's recent speech at the commencement of Tulane University. It's hilarious!

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