Sunday, August 2, 2009

Speech Writing Elements - What You Must Know

We will, on occasion, examine the fundamental elements of a good speech. Here is the first of these elements.

There are many elements to a successful speech. Carefully chosen words, well-crafted phrases, fully developed ideas, a good delivery, a significant occasion, a fancy Power Point presentation. All make a difference. Which element is most important? Like virtually every human endeavor, success lies in learning the things you must know.

How does a speech writer learn those things? Research. Solid research is the fundamental element of any good speech.

Here are the things the researcher must know -

Know the facts:
It sounds so basic, but it can easily be taken for granted. Especially when you are given information by an “expert.”

I once wrote a speech for a Senator, who had been invited to address a trade group. The Senator’s staff helpfully provided a list of legislation the group supported and the Senate had considered. Each of these bills had passed the Senate, but not the other chamber. It was helpful information, but I took the extra step of checking the precise tally of the vote in the Senate. It turned out only two Senators had voted against the legislation the association wanted. One, was the Senator I was writing the speech for.

That little extra research not only saved the speaker from potential embarrassment, but provided a deeper understanding of the issues facing the intended audience. Which, of course, led me to do a lot more research. From there, I was able to develop a speech along an entirely different theme.

Know the audience:
A clear understanding of what is important to the audience, is at least as essential as knowing what is critical to the speaker for whom you are writing. The audience wants the speaker to deal with their problems, not the speaker’s. At the same time, that audience is almost certainly looking for creative solutions to those problems. Those possible solutions should be provided by the speaker.

What every speech writer must keep in mind is - while they write for the speaker, they also write for the audience who will be listening to that speaker.

Know the greater context:
What outside forces of society affect both the speaker and the audience? How do you deal with those outside forces in trying to achieve your goals?

Know the voice of the speaker:
Each audience and speaker is different. To effectively convey the message, the language must be appropriate for the occasion, the audience and the speaker.

Know the ultimate goal of the speaker:
Is it to address just this one audience? Or is it to reach a larger target? Both audiences must be considered.

In the end, research is the basic element of speech writing, in the same way that Hydrogen is the fundamental element of the universe.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom


  1. In regards to your most recent post 'most fundamental element.....', I thought the answer might be 'rhetoric'. Doesn't this one term or element cover everything in the article? Rhetoric, along with Conflict Resolution, were two of my favorite classes at G-Town. Will forever use so much of what I learned in those courses.

    -Andrew Lovato

  2. Andrew,

    Thanks for commenting. This is, of course, a blog about speech writing, so rhetoric, language itself, is fundamental to the process. Without the shared understandings that language offers, there is no rhetoric, speech writing, or even blogs!

    You are correct that rhetoric is certainly fundamental to speech writing. Without it there are no speeches. And you can certainly have speeches without research. The problem is, they're not very good ones!

    What I'm really saying is - my first step as a speech writer is not to start writing the speech, but to start researching it. That comes even before the words start being chosen. That's why it is the first fundamental. And I can assure you a certain Senator was very grateful it is!

  3. Great article...thanks, Tom!

    Nancy Nugent

  4. I thought more than language itself, the definition of rhetoric is persuasive speaking. And of course, not all language or speech is persuasive/affective.


  5. Nancy - Thank you.

    A.L. - yes rhetoric is persuasive. My point is - without research of some kind, it won't be persuasive.

    It's unlikely Pericles went to the library at Alexandria before standing up to give his funeral oration. Nor was it offered without first arriving at a deep understanding of the situation confronting Athens. That, of course, is how we define research.

  6. I like this. I think the comments about rhetoric are dead on... before I saw them I was already thinking of something like "metaphor." Great speeches throughout history have left audiences with a picture.... ML King's "mountain," for example.

  7. Eric - You're absolutely right about great speeches throughout history leaving audiences "with a picture," even in the days when that picture would have had to be chiseled into a block of marble.

    What you are describing is a higher order element, which will be covered in a later post, and which was titled weeks ago. Look for my future post - The Visual Element. Thanks for your comment.