Beware The Short Speech Assignment

When a prospective client calls and opens with “we only need a five minute speech”, often the implication behind the “only” is that that I could just bang it off in not much more time than that. And that my invoice would be commensurately small. Luckily most discerning clients (and to my clients who read this newsletter, you are all discerning!) understand the very tricky matters of short speeches.

I define “short” somewhere in the range of three to five minutes. Anything shorter, and you truly can’t get into much detail where a lot of raw research work is required. Anything longer, you are getting much closer to a classical keynote – in terms of research, beginnings, middles and ends, story telling and the like.

They can be maddeningly difficult to write. It has been my experience that the five-minute speech can be as almost as time challenging as a full-blown 20-minute keynote.

Let’s say you are asked to write a short speech for an awards ceremony for a professional association that is honouring those of its members who have performed with great distinction. In the audience are not just award winners, but politicians, family members, media, and industry stakeholders.

As an outside speechwriter you have to do a tremendous amount of research, knowing in advance you are going to have to discard 99% of it. You have to do all your due diligence about learning the sum and substance of the association and its membership. Is there an annual report to wade through? What about their publications? There is no easy answer how much research is enough. But you have to absorb sufficient material to know what is safe to discard.

In this case the awards ceremony host has to accomplish a lot. The speech must speak a little to the purpose of the awards, acknowledge the stellar work of the winners and somehow encapsulate their accomplishments. The trick is in saying enough to cover the territory, leaving no one out, yet keeping within the time frame allotted.

There are other issues to consider. How much do you need to know about the expectations of the members of the association? Are there any land mines you need to avoid? Is this an event meant purely for celebration or are there a lot of political messages to be woven into the text. Depending on what sort of messaging the client wants to deliver to the industry and political stakeholders in the audience a substantial part of the speech might have to deal with the role and goal of the association, and projections for the future.

If indeed there are small “p” political messages to be delivered – and there always are – you must figure out how to thread the needle between saying enough but not too much. This can be a very dicey business if you are an outsider trying to come up to speed on the political nuances at hand. Certainly a face-to-face meeting with the speaker is required; in many ways such a meeting is more important than a traditional 20-minute keynote. I want to tape record the session, because I badly want to hear the phrasing that might speak to the exact type of language the client wants.

And so it goes. Before you know it, you have burned three days on a simple little 5-minute speech. So beware the new client who says “we only want a few words.” Few words maybe, but a substantial amount of time.