How to Write a Speech

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Writing a speech and producing an essay have much in common, of course, because the one is merely a spoken form of the other, but keep in mind the unique features that distinguish a presentation delivered with your voice and one that others read.

1. Plan your speech according to the occasion, considering the event, the audience, the tone of the speech (somber, serious, informal, humorous, and so on), and its duration.

2. Identify the message or theme of the speech, and how you will approach it.

3. Craft an effective opening that gets your audience’s attention, employing an anecdote, a joke, a quotation, or a thought-provoking question or assertion. You should be able to express your introduction in about thirty seconds or less.

4. Outline a handful of points to cover, just as you would when writing a persuasive or informative essay; after all, again, a speech is a spoken essay.

5. Organize the points so that they support and build on each other, and add or omit points as necessary to support your overall message or theme and to fit into your time limit.

6. Work on your transition from point to point.

7. Just as you began strongly, be sure to conclude your speech effectively by summarizing your points and finishing up with an additional question or comment for your listeners to take with them.

8. Write the speech out in full, and then evaluate it, working through as many drafts as necessary until you have honed and refined it to a crisp, clear, compelling speech.

9. When you are satisfied with the final draft, ask a couple of people to review it for you and suggest any material in it that may not be appropriate for the occasion, any flaws in organization or clarity of thought, any problems with grammar or usage, and anything that is not necessary or is missing. Revise the draft as necessary based on the feedback.

10. Though rehearsing for the speech itself is outside the purview of this post, practice reading the speech aloud to produce a final version that accounts for how it sounds as opposed to how it reads.

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6 thoughts on “How to Write a Speech”

  1. There are 2 key differences between a speech and an essay: repetition and transitions. These are very important in a speech in order to keep the audience on track, but may be distracting in an essay if used to the degree that they are needed in an oral presentation.

  2. Some distinguished public speakers, such as Isaac Asimov, never wrote down a speech! Note that besides being a well-known writer, Dr. Asimov was a well-paid public speaker before organizations of various kinds, and not just science-fiction conventions.

    Dr. Asimov – and the others – just wrote down an outline of what he wanted to talk about, given his audience and the circumstances, and besides that, he just spoke about it from memory and from what he gathered from the reactions of his audience.

    Then to find out, verbatim, what his speech stated, one would have to consult the transcripts of the speeches. His speeches were always recorded, or else taken down in shorthand by a stenographer.

    In case you are not familiar with Asimov, after some years of giving speeches and lectures at various places, he reached the point of being paid $20,000, more or less, for one speech somewhere.

  3. Before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial, he had a predefined plan for what he was going to say. It might have been written down in detail.

    However, Dr. King, was known for sometimes changing tracks and improvising during is speeches, and that was exactly what he did in Washington. One of his assistants, Andrew Young, was seated on the stage, too. Young later became noted at a Congressman from Georgia and then the Mayor of Atlanta.

    Young has stated that he noticed that Dr. King was drifting off his track, and he could tell where Dr. King was going with it. He said that he whispered to the man sitting next to him, “These people don’t know it, but they are all about to go to Church!”

    That was when Dr. King’s speech shifted into a sermon that he had preached several times before in places like Atlanta, Montgomery, and Birmigham, and it contains the great words:
    “I Have a Dream… I’ve seen the Promised Land. I might not get there, but I’ve seen the Promised Land.”

    That is one of the great speeches of American History, and yet the great part of it came from Dr. King’s improvising it.

    In the case of Asimov and some of the others, the whole thing was improvised. I believe that Carl Sagan improvised a lot in his speech. Sagan simply had his way of speaking in complete, well-conjugated sentences in everyday life. He was noteworthy for that, and so was Asimov.

  4. Giving a lecture before college students is rather like giving a speech, too, and I have given a hundred different lectures, but I never wrote any of them down. I just wrote down a detailed outline of what I wanted to say — in order to keep me from forgetting anything. Then from that point, I generally improvised all the way.

    Exceptions: When I had a complicated mathematical example to present to my students, I wrote down every detail of that in my notes and then I copied that on the blackboard for them.
    Also, if I had a detailed diagram that I wanted to present on the blackboard with no errors and no omissions, I wrote that in my notes.

    After teaching for a couple of years, I had some lectures that did not contain either of the above, and I didn’t even carry an outline to the lecture. Some of my students expressed amazement that I taught a large amount of material in an hour and a half w/o any notes. I could only reply that I had taught that lecture twice before, and I had it all memorized, anyway.

    This is not to say that everything stayed the same all the time at my college, because the whole time I was there, we were continually upgrading and extending the courses. In the midst of all that, the college changed from the quarter system to the semester system, so some courses went from 10 weeks long to 15 weeks, but some others disappeared or got consolidated with others. So, there was lots of new material, but lots of the basics remained the same.

  5. The bottom line is this:
    Any note about “How to Write a Speech” is quite incomplete without anything in it about improvising a “winging it”. There is nothing here about speaking from the mind and from the heart — or even from the soul, if you believe in that.

    Also, when giving a lecture, or a speech, when questions can be asked in the midst, some of the most delightful times are when someone asks a question that either throws a new light onto something, or else it brings up something that the speaker has forgotten. I think that this interactive element is vital.

  6. I enjoyed the article. As a college student I was encouraged to write an outline, and then write out what I intended to say, rehearse in front of a mirror, to watch my facial expressions, and be sure to time myself.

    Any time I wanted to give a speech outside of college, I had to re-teach myself.
    Just knowing my topic was good enough for me. Other than that, I was rather comfortable because I knew “my stuff.”

    D.A.W. (BTW, you have all of my initials!) you are right on! Knowing your subject matter, should be more than enough to produce a successful speech / lecture.

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