Challenging Conventional Wisdom: On The Best Way To Learn How To Write A Speech

Challenging Conventional Wisdom: On The Best Way To Learn How To Write A Speech

Conventional wisdom and many books on the topic suggest you learn how to write good speeches by reading good speeches.

Well, I’m sorry, but that is not very helpful advice.

If you are into “genre analysis” — may god in her infinite wisdom bless your poor depraved soul – then by all means — read away. And, certainly silently reading a good speech won’t necessarily rot your brain. But it won’t teach you much about what good speechifying is all about.

Don’t get me wrong. If you are reading a great speech, the sentiments expressed on the page are likely to speak to your imagination. Sort of. But like good poetry, a fine speech doesn’t begin to come alive until you hear the words spoken aloud. It is only then that your spirit and your heart can be truly engaged.

Don’t believe me? Go read what is undoubtedly the best American speech of the 19th century – Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The words on paper are marvelous to be sure. But they scream out to be spoken aloud. And now go listen.

See what I mean?

So, if you are going to analyze a speech in the quiet confines of your room, at least read it aloud to hear how the phrasing sounds to your ear. That will help. A little. But you are likely still getting some brain interference going on as you read aloud and listen to yourself at the same time.

Far better to hunt down and listen to a decent recitation of the speech.

Because there is no getting around it; listening is the best way to learn the language of the ear. Listen to speeches and you begin to hear patterns. Listen to speeches and you begin to hear the music and what is going on between the notes. Over time, you will begin to subliminally learn how phrasing and rhythm work.

Refining your listening skills need not be an onerous task. Hundreds of audio files are available to us in the blink of a Google search. And of course, there are the ever popular, and much emulated, TED talks.

Then, if you are still truly dedicated to learning the craft, go to any Board of Trade/ Chamber of Commerce luncheon and listen to what their guest speaker is serving up. You will be amazed and appalled – but hopefully not at the same presentation.

Between the great and the god-awful, you should be able to figure out what works and what doesn’t and why.

So, advice for the aspiring speechwriter? In this order — listen, listen, listen — then write, write, write — and then, only then, you can read, read, read. Because if you follow this plan, the reading will make sense as you will be able to hear the sounds of the words you put down on paper.


4 thoughts on “Challenging Conventional Wisdom: On The Best Way To Learn How To Write A Speech

  1. Excellent advice, especially for those of us who come from a more traditional journalism or PR background where reading–and writing–tends to happen in solitary and silent ways. Just to add that in a pinch–and if you have the text–use the text-to-audio feature on your computer. The voice is not ideal, but still gives you something to listen to.

  2. Absolutely. I use the awful computer voice all the time, to proof read and well as get a sense of how the speech sounds. If it doesn’t sound entirely wretched with that monotone voice, then I know I might be on to something.

  3. Absolutely agree about listening to great speeches.

    My best ever speech teacher taught me how to listen to a speech, what to listen for, how to analyze my responses — emotional and intellectual — to different sections of the speech, why I remembered certain phrases and images (and why I forgot whole swatches).

    I also learned to speak the words as I write them.

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