10 Speechwriter Secrets to Make Your Speeches More Powerful

Christopher Witt —  January 24, 2014

Writing a speechYou don’t have to be a professional speechwriter to master effective strategies for creating a powerful speech.

You already know (more or less) what works in your day-to-day conversations: how to connect, make a point, gain buy-in, and answer questions. The secret to public speaking (it’s not really a secret) is knowing how to tweak those same communication strategies to improve your speeches.

Here are 10 speechwriter secrets that will improve your speeches and presentations.

1. Have a plan.

A speech or presentation is really a project. You wouldn’t approach any other project without first determining your goal and a method for achieving it, would you? The same is true for a speech. You need a plan.

Begin by determining what you want to accomplish. Specifically, define what you want the audience to do as a result of listening to you. Then ask yourself why they would want to do it. How will your idea (proposal, product, service, initiative, procedure, etc.) help them solve a problem or achieve a goal that’s important to them?

2. Create an outline.

Start with an introduction, which captures your audience’s attention and interest and gives an overview of what you’ll be talking about.

Then create the body of your speech, which is three to five main points, each of which explains, clarifies, or substantiates your one central theme. Make sure those main points flow logically one into another. 

Then, finish it off with a conclusion, which recapitulates your main points and gives your audience an impetus to act.

Your outline can be simple or detailed, but it is the blueprint for your speech so make sure it is clear and logical.

3. Be clear.

If you confuse your audience, they’ll shut you down. They’ll stop listening and, possibly, turn against you. They certainly won’t do what you want them to. So be clear.

Define your terms. Give examples. Tell stories. Use illustrations or demonstrations. You don’t have to dumb down complex ideas. After all, your audience may be quite smart. It’s just that they’re often smart in ways that you’re not, and vice versa.

4. Speak like you’re talking to a friend.

Talk the way you normally do. Say I, we, and you. Avoid the passive voice, which is the refuge of people who want to avoid responsibility. (Would you ever say to a friend, “Mistakes were made”?) You can use incomplete sentences, end your sentences in prepositions, and even dare to split infinitives. Your goal isn’t to get an “A” for grammar, but to get your point across as clearly, forcefully, and memorably as possible.

(It helps, of course, if you like your audience.)

5. Banish corporate-speak and clichés.

Avoid words like synergistic, customer-centric, best-of-breed, turnkey, leverage, mission-critical, paradigm, and robust. They’re ugly and flat-footed. And they’ve been so overused that they’ve become meaningless.

Shun phrases like at the end of the day, moving forward, think outside the box, open the kimono, move the needle, and drink the cool-aid. It you talk like that in a friendly conversation, you’ve fallen into some really, really bad habits. Stop them now.

Platitudes and clichés are a substitute for good thinking. Eliminate them.

6. Tell stories.

Stories appeal to people’s imaginations and emotions. They’re memorable. And they form a bond between you and the audience (called rapport) faster and more effectively than just about any other technique.

Personal stories are the most powerful of all. Don’t make yourself the hero of the story. Tell about something that happened to you or that you witnessed that gave you an insight you’d like to share with your audience. 

7. Use parallel construction.

Organizing your material in parallel form is a good way to make it clear and memorable. My list of ten secrets, for example, uses a parallel structure: short, imperative sentences.

Listing items is a way of creating parallelism. Tell people you’re going to talk about, say, the 10 speech-writing secrets that will help them create better speeches. Then number them off as you talk about them: “The first secret is…”

8. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

If it’s worth saying, it’s worth saying three times. Trust me on this. People are only listening with, at best, one-third of their mental energy. You won’t insult their intelligence by repeating your most important points. They probably won’t even notice that you’re repeating yourself.

9. Take a stand.

The best speeches develop one idea as clearly, persuasively, and boldly as possible. Your job isn’t to be objective or impartial, but to be fair, truthful, and wise.

Do your research. Analyze and assess what you’ve learned. Come to a conclusion about what matters most and what needs to be done. Then take a stand and make your best case. Do it relentlessly and, if possible, with humor. Don’t leave anyone wondering what you believe is right and proper or what you want to happen.

10. Keep it brief.

Never, never, never exceed the time you’ve been assigned. Preferably, finish early. Your audience will love you for it. President Eisenhower said (using parallelism), “Be sincere, be brief, and be seated.”

Do you have any suggestions for making a speech stronger?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.