In the hands of the right performer, there are few more powerful tools in the communicator’s arsenal than the set piece or keynote speech.

The house lights dim and the spotlight shines raw credibility and status on the speaker, while the PA system adds weight and tone to their voice.  The speaker is then free to excite, amuse and engage the audience, a thought leader sharing wisdom, experience and insight, all wrapped up in highly targeted key messages.

The keynote address also sets the tone and context for the various conversations that will take place as soon as the applause has faded and the speaker has left the stage and coffee is served.  Journalists will rush to file stories on what the speaker said and employees, if that’s the audience, will come away committed to doing things differently just as soon as they get back to the workplace.

Great speeches do create profound emotional connections between the speaker and the audience. They are a platform to deliver messages that live long in the memory, build brands and help differentiate businesses.  They can also build the profile and enhance the earnings potential of the speaker that delivered them.

But it all starts with the right script.  Here’s a few speech-writing lessons I’ve learnt over the years.

  • Write in the shortest sentences possible. Shorter is punchier. It’s easier to say.  Easier to remember.  More memorable.  If your sentences are too long, no matter how well you’ve written them, even the most polished and seasoned speaker will get lost among the clauses, come under attack from a shortage of breath and find it impossible to get to the next sentence without the aid of a map.
  • Only use words and phrases that the speaker uses in everyday speech.  Writing in management speak or corporate gobbledygook will make the speaker sound like the average CFO reading from a balance sheet at a financial results presentation.  Trust me. No one wants that.
  • The first sentence is critical. It should demand the audience’s attention, make them sit up straight and set the tone for what follows. So best avoid a first sentence that starts with:  “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen …”
  • The script should surprise.  Don’t be afraid to say something new or controversial.  As an audience member, there’s nothing worse than sitting through 30 minutes of what we already know.  Our minds turn to regret for the money we’re paying for car parking while hearing it all again.
  • Know the person you’re writing the speech for well.  It’s difficult to write a personality into a speech for a speaker that doesn’t possess one.  So avoid writing jokes for someone with no feel for comic delivery, and stay clear of big emotional closes for any speakers who suffer from premature lumps in their own throats while delivering them.
  • Refuse point blank to allow the use of slides:  Nothing kills the passion of a rip roaring, rousing speech faster than a bar graph and bullet points popping up on the large screen behind the lectern.
  • Avoid maths class.  The occasional numerical fact adds weight, power and credibility to a key point.  But resist the temptation to overdo it – too many numbers and the speaker will get confused and the audience will need calculators to keep up.
  • Don’t try to be smarter than the speaker you’re writing for.  If the speaker doesn’t really understand every word of the speech you’ve written for them, it’s unlikely their audience will either.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.  It’s great to rehearse the speech in front of a mirror and supportive friends and family as often as possible in advance of the big day.  You’ll be perfectly placed to hammer home your key points. You’ll be the master of every punch line and extract the last ounce of emotion from every pregnant pause. But you’re the writer. The speaker needs to do that.
  • Avoid just in time delivery.  See point above.  You’re doing the speaker no favours by turning up at the last minute with the perfect speech.  Unless you’ve gone through it with the speaker at least five times during production, you better be prepared to get on stage and deliver the speech yourself.
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