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Speech Writing Tips: Don’t Forget, It’s Not an Essay

September 12, 2014 / Blog presentation content, presentation tips, speech writing, speech writing tips

What makes the best public speakers so enigmatic and memorable? How are they able to capture and retain the attention of their audience for so long? Aside from practicing good delivery, their secret is also in the way they write speeches.

Speech Writing Tips
Death to the Stock Photo

We can call a presentation a success if the audience is able to connect and engage with the speaker.

To get there, they need to be able to follow the flow and logic of your arguments. While having a PowerPoint deck can certainly help in that front, the way you share information is just as crucial.

John Coleman of the Harvard Business Review reveals most speakers make the mistake of reciting an essay for their audience. Instead of working on a speech that’s concise and straight to the point, they tend to overwhelm audiences with a laundry list of information.

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For a successful presentation, don’t forget that a speech and an essay are two different things.

With that in mind, here are three speech writing tips to help you out:

Keep it short and simple

When writing a speech, be mindful of the difference between our ability to learn information orally and visually. As Coleman puts it,

The average adult reads 300 words per minute, but people can only follow speech closely at around 150-160 words per minute. Similarly, studies have shown auditory memory is typically inferior to visual memory, and while most of us can read for hours, our ability to focus on a speech is more constrained.

It will be easier for your audience to remember what you’re saying if you practice brevity and simplicity. Don’t complicate your speech by going into details. Stick to the points that is crucial to what you want people to takeaway. Start by outlining all your ideas and slowly trimming the list down as you begin writing your speech.

Constantly review previous points and use ‘signposts’

Remember when you would have to read an essay for class? If there were things you couldn’t understand, you can simply reread a certain passage as many times as you want. Unfortunately, that won’t be possible for the people listening to you speak. Apart from keeping it brief, your speech also needs a structure that the audience can easily identify and follow. Divide your key points into three main segments and introduce them right away as you begin your speech:

In your introduction, state your thesis and then lay out the structure of your speech ahead of time (e.g., “we’ll see this in three ways: x, y, and z”).

Coleman also suggests using what he calls “signposts.” Words like “first of all,” “next” and “finally” signal to the audience that you’re transitioning from one idea to the next.

Focus on telling a story

As we’ve discussed in the past, storytelling should always be an integral part of any presentation.Coleman suggests that it’s better to stick with a story, especially when you have to data to share. Instead of reciting a list of statistics, it would be better if you zeroed in on the narrative behind the numbers:

Neuroscience has shown that the human brain was wired for narrative… Lead or end an argument with statistics. But never fall into reciting strings of numbers or citations. Your audience will better follow, remember, and internalize stories.

It will also help if you stick with language that’s highly visual. Make use of metaphors and analogies to perfectly illustrate what your data or statistics mean.

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Coleman, John. “A Speech Is Not an Essay.” Harvard Business Review. 2014. Accessed September 12, 2014.
Nelson, Brett. “Do You Read Fast Enough To Be Successful?Forbes. Accessed September 12, 2014.
Widrich, Leo. “The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story Is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains.” Lifehacker. Accessed December 5, 2014.


Featured Image: Marijn de Vries Hoogerwerff via Flickr