What makes a good speech? What are the common threads that cause audiences to stand up and applaud at the end? Why do so few rise to that level?
It seems to me that whatever the reasons the speaker has for giving a speech - be it making a policy statement - imparting new information - talking about an internal reorganization - or speaking about the state of the nation - what they all must do at some fundamental level is engage the audience. While the propagation of information may well be a desired by-product of a speech, remember this: engagement has a far longer half-life than information. You want the audience to associate the connection they feel with your speakers, not with the facts they are spewing out in the moment.
Which leads to the next obvious question - just what are the elements of an engaging speech? At the risk of being dreadfully specific, I would say there are five. And the first two you don't have much control over.
The first relates to the innate oratorical skills of your speakers. Richard Burton, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King could all have read entries from the phone book and they would have sounded good. The trouble is most of our clients - even with the best speech coaches in the world - tend to sound wooden, flat and monotone. So scratch that one off your list.
The next factor is the nature of the event. Some events are just fraught with expectation or emotion. Think the post 9/11 Presidential Address to Congress. Think eulogies in memory of a great person or the passing of a personal friend. There are in these types of events a built-in assumption that the listener will be at least be inclined to be engaged. Even if the speech itself is less than inspiring, the speaker is forgiven because the "event" supercedes all else. Unfortunately speech writers have little control over the nature the event but they should certainly use that as their starting point when they consider issues of cadence, tone, rhythm, and depending on circumstance, formality or intimacy.
The third element of engagement is humour. If you can get them laughing, you have got it made. Unfortunately it is usually easier to make an audience cry than to make them laugh. And having your audience cry is not usually regarded as the optimum outcome. Writing humor can be a terribly difficult business. Run very far if you have a client who asks that you write a speech with lots of jokes. Unless you are Jerry Seinfeld, it can't be done. But do not despair. Because the best humour - the most authentic humour - comes out of personal story. Which leads me to the fourth element - story telling.
In almost every interaction with human beings there is an element of story telling. And speeches are no different. We all suffer from the human condition. We all have the same frailties and insecurities. When speakers reveal theirs through the medium of story, audiences recognize themselves and say "oh yes, he/she is one of us. And now I trust the message as well as the messenger."
The final and perhaps the most powerful element of engagement is the appropriate use of language. As the writer, this is what you have most control over. I am often asked as a freelancer - how can I write with the distinctive voice of each and every speaker, especially when I often don't get to meet a lot of my clients. To which I reply I don't even try. I write in a style that is simple - straight forward - in every person's language - meant for the ear and not the eye.
So there you have it. Assuming that your clients are not the best orators in the world, and the events they are speaking at are of the more mundane variety, then you are left with humour, language and story. And you don't even need to have all three for gosh sakes. Write a speech that makes the audience laugh a little. That draws them in with a story or two. Deliver a simple message (singular). And keep it short.
Finally, be very brave when you review the final draft with your client and together ask yourselves "would we want to sit through this speech?" If the answer is yes, the chances are pretty good you will have an engaged audience who will ask your client to come back again and again.
Colin Moorhouse. All rights reserved.