Favorite Tips From Speech Writers

I recently attended the 2013 Speechwriters and Executive Communicators Conference in Washington, D.C., presented by Ragan Communications and the Public Relations Society of America. I learned just how little I know about speechwriting. On a positive note, I now know some things I can do to make the speeches I write stronger, which will make the job of the executives who have to deliver them easier.

Speech Format: One tip was to have a 3- or 4-inch margin at the bottom of the page. This prevents the speaker from having his head completely bowed.  I always knew to print in large type and to use 1-1/2 spaces between lines, but this one was new to me. Another good tip is to use a heavier stock of paper as the speaker will fumble less when turning pages.

Write the Headline: Fletcher Dean, director of Leadership Communication at The Dow Chemical Company, said that if you want to get the speech covered then you need to write the headline for the speech that you want in the paper the next day. This is known as the headline trick. Once you have the headline it becomes your key message and you can’t waiver from that in the speech. He also recommends writing the lead, the next graph and a quote within the speech, making it easier for a reporter.

Dr. Rosemary King, a former speechwriter for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and two Charimen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested taking the headline trick a step further. “Make sure you don’t get the headline that you don’t want to see.”

Speech Coverage: Randy Lee, who has written speeches for the presidents of the American Medical Association and Georgetown University, as well as the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, notes that most reporters are under time crunches.

“If you have copies of the speech, hand them out before the speech and ask them to embargo it,” he said. “You might even circle or highlight the most important things.”

Idea Box: To keep content fresh King suggests setting up an idea box where you can keep quotes, metaphors and anything else that might inspire the speech writing process. She uses Evernote as an idea box.

Old v. New Material: Fletcher reminded the audience that material that is old to you as a writer or to the speaker may not be for the audience.

Script or No Script: As for when to read from a script, most experts say the size of the audience and the room set up determine the format. If it’s a formal venue, “it’s rude to not have prepared remarks,” Lee said. “It shows that you care about the audience.”

If it’s fewer than 20 people, King said to not use a manuscript, but rather note cards or speak extemporaneously.