How to Write a Speech
Henry Ehrlich honed his professional skills writing speeches for the senior management of, among others, several major banks, various consulting companies and New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. We asked him to distill the learned wisdom of his years in the trade down to the essentials.
1 Know your audience. They will be more sympathetic if you show you have made an effort to learn about them and understand the way they think, even if they don’t agree with your point of view.
2 If you open with a joke, make sure your speaker can tell a joke. If not, make it a funny story or anecdote instead, or cite a New Yorker cartoon that pertains to your topic.
3 A good speech has a beginning, a middle, and an end. At the Pentagon, they sum it up: tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; tell ’em; and tell ’em what you just told ’em.
4 Spend a disproportionate amount of time on your beginning. That’s what God wants you to do, and if you don’t believe me ask your preacher. A good beginning captures the audience’s attention and sets up the argument that follows. With the right opening, the rest of the speech often writes itself.
5 Keep it short. The Gettysburg Address is 267 words long. There’s almost nothing you can’t say in 20 minutes. A speaker I once knew took off his watch and laid it on the lectern to help him keep track of the time, explaining, “Research shows that people remember everything you say in the first 10 minutes; in the next 10 minutes their attention starts to wander; and after 20 minutes they start to have sexual fantasies.”
6 Don’t show off your extensive vocabulary. Your speaker—it might be you—will surely be better off if he or she doesn’t have to think about how to pronounce a word, and if your audience doesn’t have to think about what it means.
7 If you are going to use quotations, and you should, make sure it is plausible for your speaker to have come across them in normal reading. Don’t play pin the tail on Bartlett’s.
8 If you are going to use statistics, and you should, make it clear in the text why they are significant. Give them context. For example, “The Gettysburg Address is 267 words long, or 1,453 characters—just over 10 tweets.”
9 If you are going to use personal anecdotes, and you should, be sure they make sense for the purpose you intend; and if they didn’t happen to your speaker, make sure you aren’t stealing them from someone whose life your audience will recognize. Vice-President Joe Biden, among others, has run afoul of this rule.
10 If you are going to use humor, and you should, the rules of political, racial, and sexual correctness absolutely count unless you’re talking to entirely likeminded people, or you’re at a Friar’s Club roast. A good barometer is whether you feel tempted to ask someone else whether something is appropriate. If so, don’t use it. Rule 2 about telling jokes applies elsewhere in the speech, too.