A Speechwriter’s Guide – Top 4 Lessons That Count
Of the many eagerly awaited keynotes and discussions at the recently concluded annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos, the one that caught global attention was an unscripted diatribe against tax avoidance by a little known historian.
Not the much publicised interview of naturalist and documentary maker David Attenborough by Britain’s Prince William. Nor the discussion with another media favourite, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, on her wellbeing budget and mental health.
Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman, upended the globalisation debate by focussing on tax avoidance, a topic that the Davos regulars would rather ignore. Bregman was taken aback when he realised that his remarks against the world’s elite made him a social media sensation and a media darling almost overnight.
Was it Bregman’s chutzpah to stand against the world’s most powerful and influential that won him admiration? Is it news fatigue kicking in against topics around climate change and trade wars that a subject as dry as taxation has fired people’s imagination? Or was it something in his message – clear and simple – that caught the attention?
In my experience of writing speeches for business leaders and policy-makers, I have discovered some patterns in what clicks with the audience and what does not.
Below are some lessons I have picked from my years of research into what makes a speech relatable and effective.
Lesson No. 1: Stick to one big idea
One idea, one key message. Develop a central theme and weave in all the messages that you want to deliver within that theme.
Apple has a speech department in which writers and researchers toil over keynotes and talking points for its executives. In an article in The Atlantic, the company’s former chief speechwriter, Jayne Benjulian, points to an important guideline the writers follow: one central idea.
Motivational speaker and author Simon Sinek does it beautifully in a TEDx talk in which he delivers a rather esoteric message in a simple, effective way. He believes “people don’t buy what you do but they buy why you do it.” In other words, talk to your customer about the “why” behind your business idea and not “what” is that idea. He picks seemingly unconnected subjects – Apple, the Wright Brothers and Martin Luther King – to explain his theory.
While delivering one big idea, it is sometimes important to repeat the message. In his 18-minute talk, Sinek reminds the audience about his central theme at least four times.
Lesson No. 2: Make it personal
Data can be eye-catchy but how much of data will your audience remember once they step out of the room? Data can also be tricky. How reliable is your source; if someone questions the data that you present, can you defend it?
But if you relate an anecdote or a story, it will stay with your audience. And nobody can dispute a personal story.
I remember listening to a presentation a few years ago in which the speaker starts with an audio recording of a 911 call made by his father in the US who he is getting a stroke, and how that call sets the paramedical and medical services in motion. That short audio clip sets the context for his talk – the role of technology in healthcare.
This kind of storytelling has all the ingredients of successfully delivering the message – personal, dramatic and honest.
Not all occasions are fit for a format like that. But lacing an anecdote or two to illustrate a point or breaking down technical mumbo-jumbo with some real-life examples are some effective ways to keep your audience engaged.
Lesson No. 3: Inject some humour
A bit of humour often does the trick. Jon Favreau, who was the chief speechwriter of Barrack Obama, points to Obama’s “birth video” release at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner to stress the role that humour plays in driving home a message. Even when it is a serious issue. That recording, in which Obama plays a clip from The Lion King and reminds Fox News that it is a joke, has been viewed close to 2.5 million times on YouTube. The press conference in which the White House releases a copy of his birth certificate has a little over 130,000 views.
Of course, not everybody can carry humour the way Obama does. And not every occasion provides room for humour.
But speakers and writers must consciously look for possible lighter moments in the script, especially if the talk is long and is packed with facts and figures.
Lesson No. 4: Do your research
Research takes up much more time than putting down your thoughts into words. If you talk to a speechwriter, she will tell you that research covers three areas – the topic; the other speakers, panelists and the audience expected at the event; and the speaker, if she is not familiar with that person’s style yet.
Journalists make good speechwriters because of their research skills, their training to look at everything from the reader’s point of view (in this case, the audience), critical thinking, and an ability to connect the dots and draw a big picture.
Research is much easier today thanks to the internet. But when I started writing speeches in 2006-2007, it was a different story.
In 2007, an industry association asked me to write a keynote for a minister who was going to release a report at its event. My brief was to pick some key data from the report and talk about the industry’s growth and future outlook in India. But when the script was submitted to the minister’s staff, they said that it had all the right substance but it was not written in the minister’s style. But in those early days of YouTube, there were no videos of the minister online from which I could pick his style. So I spent the next couple of days talking to his staff to fix the tone and style.
In fact, one of the biggest challenges for a speechwriter is to get into the speaker’s shoes. Obama referred to Favreau as his mind reader, which is a big compliment for a speechwriter.
To reach that stage, the speechwriter needs to invest time to follow developments in the presenter’s industry or area of expertise and understand his or her and the organisation’s stance regarding those, and study the person’s style and comfort areas. And the speaker needs to communicate his or her thoughts and ideas with the writer as often as possible.
Since time is limited and the attention span of your audience is dwindling, make each word count. And that needs preparation. Former American president Woodrow Wilson had a good formula for it: “If I am to speak 10 minutes, I need a week for preparation; if 15 minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”
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