“Before you ask me who wrote such shrewd prose, let me just say: Speeches are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made”. Those were comments by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as reported in a recent New York Times article. Years earlier, when a West Wing episode focused on drafting a State of the Union speech, in culinary terms it was like a ten-course gourmet meal. (Photo below: scene from West Wing episode at 2006 Democratic National Convention)
Speechwriting coach and author Joan Detz certainly agrees about the challenges of creating and delivering effective speeches. But instead of keeping her speechmaking sauce secret, she demystified the process and shared some pointers during the IABC World Conference in New York last month.
Worth the effort? “Remember, it’s an invite, not a subpoena,” Detz cautioned the audience. Before covering the specifics of speech content, she emphasized that prospective speakers should weigh whether the speech is even worth the substantial amount of time involved in preparation, revisions, rehearsal and travel. “It’s ok occasionally to decline an invitation to speak”, she said.
Clearly this may run counter to the goals of many corporate presenters and those seeking high-profile, lucrative speaking engagements. Though as Detz noted, “too much value is lost by giving mediocre speeches. Huge egos go out and speak too much when they could be doing other things.”
Deciding factors: What are key variables Detz recommends considering when figuring out which speeches are warranted? Find out about the host organization, target audience, subject matter, which other speakers are slated to appear, the proposed day and time slot. That way you won’t end up delivering a talk to a controversial group or be surprised when you show up and discover you’re scheduled for the dreaded late afternoon session. (And it’s best not to take the stage behind comedian John Oliver, unless you’re Stephen Colbert.)
Customization: Personalizing speeches to meet audience needs is critical, especially for a demanding crowd, Detz said. That way attendees know you cared enough to spend the time addressing their issues. (Hillary Clinton, now popular on the speaker circuit, has mastered this technique). Detz advised customizing the opening, case examples and the ending, while parts of the body of the speech can be used on other occasions. Samples of effective opening comments: “You are the reason I said ‘yes’ to come here today,” or “Here’s the 140 character version of my talk.”
Length: Speech duration is another crucial variable, Detz said, and shorter is definitely better. Not only do briefer speeches “allow more time for interactive Q & A, but they also minimize the damage of mediocre delivery”. The audience can only take away a few points, and these should be driven home. Anything that may make the audience snooze or check their cell phones should be deleted, but material creating a local/regional feel should be kept. Checking out the local area first is a worthwhile step.
Style: Since adopting an appealing, memorable, quotable speechwriting style is essential, good writing and interesting material are important. Detz believes it comes down to content more than delivery, though they work in tandem. She advises clients to forecast “which five lines may be quoted by the audience and the press”, and said it’s not hard to predict what will draw attention. Statistics and historical facts can be incorporated if given the right frame of reference, she added.
Overall: Carefully selecting the most optimal speaking opportunities and meticulous advance preparation can’t be overstated, since as Detz observed, “you don’t win awards for exhaustion.”