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Writing Scripts and Speeches

Writing for speech is different from writing for print. Check out these tips for successful live presentations.

By
Erika Enigk, read by Mignon Fogarty
September 20, 2012
Episode #337

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Today, we’re going to tackle two of the scariest things you may ever be asked to do: writing and delivering a speech. To help your next presentation go well, check out these quick and dirty tips for writing scripts and speeches.

Tip #1: Keep it Quick and Dirty

Keep it short. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches in history, and it’s just 10 sentences long. Of course, not every presenter can be as brief as Lincoln, and a two-minute speech wouldn’t be appropriate if you’ve been asked to fill half an hour. Don’t cut yourself short, but do fill your time with relevant material that will keep your audience interested.

Tip #2: Orient Your Listener

Take control of your listeners’ expectations. A strong introduction is important whether you’re writing or speaking, but it takes a lot longer to listen to a speech than to read an article, and it will help your audience commit to your presentation if you start by telling them why it’s important. For example, “We’re going to spend the next 30 minutes talking about the zombie apocalypse, because if you’re prepared for zombies, you’re prepared for anything!”  It also helps to include an interesting anecdote or question to hook them, like, “Did you know that FEMA recently released tips on how to survive a zombie apocalypse?”

Also, remember that your presentation begins as soon as you take the podium Don’t spend 10 minutes thanking everyone in the room before you get to the meat of your piece. A brief thank-you is fine.

Tip #3: Keep Important Information at the Beginning of Your Sentences

 Keep your listeners hooked throughout your speech by crafting your sentences in a way that grabs them at the beginning. When telling the audience something new and interesting, start your sentence with the most important information. Imagine Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I had a son, and it was you.” Putting the main subject and the main verb first in the sentence makes it far more interesting: “I am your father.”

Tip #4: Finish Strong

To help your audience walk away satisfied, finish by reminding them of what they’ve learned and if appropriate, what you want them to do next: “Zombies may not be lurking outside your door right now, but you never know when a disaster will strike. Build an emergency kit, make a plan with your family, and be ready to run if your neighbors come looking for brains.”

Tip #5: Write an Outline, Then Write Your Speech

Write an outline, but don’t stop there. An outline can be a great tool to help you organize your thoughts, but it’s no substitute for a polished presentation. Unless you’re an incredibly gifted speaker with lots of experience, it’s usually better to write out exactly what you’re going to say. The professionals—politicians and actors who routinely give speeches—usually script everything, even their jokes and asides.

Also, if you’re writing for someone else, an outline certainly won’t cut it, especially if he or she isn’t familiar with the material. Even though it’s more work, writing a full script will ensure that your speaker gets the information right and gives an engaging talk.

Tip #6: Be Conversational

Write with a conversational tone. Most of us don’t write and speak the same way, and that’s OK. But when preparing a speech or presentation, you should try to write the way you speak. You probably use contractions when you’re talking; don’t be afraid to use them in your writing too. That last sentence could have sounded stiff if I had said, “Do not be afraid” instead of “Don’t be afraid.” 

A few well-placed jokes or slang terms can help you sound conversational, but don’t use words or devices you wouldn’t normally use. You might sound like you’re trying too hard.

Most of us don’t listen to ourselves speak, so it can be hard to identify our normal tendencies without help. Record yourself talking about your topic. You can use your outline if you need a guide, but right now, don’t worry too much about hitting all your bullet points. Instead, imagine a friend just walked up to you and said, “Have you heard a zombie apocalypse is coming?” How would you respond?

When you listen to your recording, you’ll probably find that you’re more wordy when you speak than when you write. That’s OK. Most people are. Also, you may find yourself addressing your friend directly, a technique that will help you connect with your audience.

Tip #7: Know Your Speaker

You’ve probably already heard the advice “know your audience,” but when writing a script, it’s just as important to consider who will say your words as who will hear them. If you’re writing for yourself, it’s easy, but if you’re writing for someone else, you may need to adjust your voice and tone. You don’t have to imitate the person; he or she will find ways to personalize the material. But do think about who the speaker is and why he or she will be speaking, and don’t write in a way that obviously doesn’t fit with his or her style.

Include pronunciation keys for unfamiliar words and names, especially if the presenter isn’t a native English speaker. Be sure to put your notes on a different page or in a different font color so your speaker doesn’t accidentally work them into the presentation. You may also want to use italics or underlining to highlight important words or points so the speaker knows what to emphasize. If the script will be published somewhere, though, remember to take out all those notes you included to help the speaker. 

Tip #8: Practice, Polish, and Perfect

Whether you decide to read your talk, recite it, or speak from an outline, be sure to rehearse. Skipping this step can have disastrous consequences, especially if you’re being recorded.

Tip #9: Stop Worrying

In conclusion, writing a speech is different from writing for print or the Web.  You need to set your audience’s expectations, write in a way that sounds like natural speech, and then once you’ve written the speech, you need to know it so well that you sound like you’re speaking to a friend instead of delivering prepared material. It’s scary to put your words out there for people to hear or say, but you can do it! If you care about your topic, and speak with passion and authority, others will care about it too.

This article was written by writer and editor Erika Enigk. Find out more about her at www.erikaenigk.com.

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Chris Sigaloff  & Xavier Le Mounier giving the closing speech image, Kennisland at Flickr. CC BY SA 2.0.

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