Speechwriting Today: Helping Leaders Speak More Persuasively

Christopher Witt —  September 28, 2012

Chris and Max

Max Atkinson and Chris Witt
at the UK Speechwriters Guild Conference

I was the closing keynote speaker at a conference of European speechwriters held in Bournemouth, England last week. People came from France, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Poland, Turkey, and — farther afield — from Tobago and New Zealand.

Topics included writing speeches for an international audience, for the UN, and for politicians; mastering rhetorical devices that make audience applaud; writing eulogies; and learning from Hitler’s rhetoric. (The person who spoke about Hitler’s rhetoric made it clear that he was not praising or in anyway sympathizing with Hitler, his politics or policies, simply analysing what he did to make his speeches so powerful.)

It was a privilege to share the podium with such extraordinary experts in the field of speechwriting.

Here are some of the key insights about writing speeches for leaders that I gained from listening to my fellow speechwriters:

  1. Humor is okay. Jokes are not.
    When speeches are being simultaneously translated and when audiences come from many different cultures, jokes are bound to fail. So don’t tell them. (I think it’s difficult to pull off a joke with any audience.) Humor is another matter. It often helps to loosen up an audience who may be highly critical. Surprisingly, broad or low humor (not coarse humor) is more effective than highly intellectual humor. (In my opinion, you can’t go wrong if you laugh at yourself or at your own foibles and invite others to join in.)
  2. Limit you speeches to 10 minutes.
    People’s attention spans are limited, so keep speeches short. (I think you can speak up to 20 minutes, if your topic calls for it, but no longer.)
  3. Use short words and simple sentences to make your statements bold.
    Don’t pussyfoot around. Don’t embellish what you’re saying with big words. Find the simplest, clearest way to say what you mean.
  4. Speaking is a more powerful way to influence people than writing.
    Emails, policy statements, white papers and the like do not have the power to move people. Giving a speech — a well written, well delivered one — is a more effective way to sway people.
  5. Strive for psychological clarity, not logical coherence.
    Logic and reason don’t move people: emotions do. This is not an excuse for disregarding or distorting the facts, by the way. It is a reminder that facts, by and large, don’t motivate people into changing their minds or their actions.
  6. Don’t overwhelm audiences with options.
    A speech isn’t the right vehicle for carefully examining all the options and for choosing the best one. It’s a leader’s job (or the speechwriter’s job) to do that work as part of his/her preparation and to whittle the options down to two. Present two options and make your case for the one you consider best of all.
  7. Create a feeling in the audience to sway them.
    The more you’re able to unite the audience emotionally, the more you’ll be able to sway them. Treat your speech as an event you’re staging, not as a talk you’re delivering.

Some of these insights gained from the European speechwriters pertain more to international speeches. But I think the core truths apply to any speech that a leader gives. What do you think?

PS. Max Atkinson’s book, Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations, is a classic. Check it out.

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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.

One response to Speechwriting Today: Helping Leaders Speak More Persuasively

  1. Thank you for the informative post. I like the first point about humour. One thing that has worked for me as a speechwriter is using humourous quotations on the topic. Something funny has been said about everything and can work when placed in the right spot. For instance, when speaking about writing I often quote Robert Heinlein who said, “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”