Speeches & Speech-Writing

“We didn’t have to build a wall to keep our people in.”

Powerful words, spoken half a century ago by President John F Kennedy in West Berlin as he denounced Communism and called himself a Berliner. It’s remembered even now, especially as President Trump once promised to build a wall to keep people out; you can find Kennedy’s words on Youtube, and his words have even been intercut into a music video (which I can’t find – how frustrating).

President Kennedy was well-known for his oratorical style, and he’s not alone; there are a number of speakers who engage audiences with their style, substance, or both.

There are a number of different factors to both writing and delivering a good speech; it’s just a shame that not everyone agrees on what they are. The first thing that comes to mind might appear to be a minor point, but it can actually be a significant irritant; if the speaker relies on someone else to tell them when their time is up, continues talking until they are cut off, and then just abruptly finishes. The audience can be left with the feeling they are being shortchanged. I’m left with the impression that the speaker doesn’t have confidence in what they are saying, because they can’t condense the main points into a set time-frame and will burble on and on for as long as they can.

Repetition in a speech can be useful, as long as it’s used in the right way. Consider Winston Churchill’s “Fight them on the beaches” speech in 1940; he is long-considered the right Prime Minister for the right time, and whether you agree with that or not, it’s easy to see how he comfortably communicated his ideas. He could have easily said, “We shall fight on the beaches, the landing grounds, the fields, the streets, and in the hills” – but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? He said, with more force, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” What a powerful speech, make better by the repetition.

Ambiguity is also important, although that might sound counter-intuitive. When people are looking for something in a potential or actual leader, they need to hear something specific when they speak – and that something might be different from someone else. But both might be looking for a sea change in leadership, and could well be willing to support the same person even if they are at different points on the political spectrum – if they hear what they want to hear. There certainly is a time and a place for specificity, but this isn’t it; Tony Blair and Barack Obama are two examples of brilliant “vague” speakers who appeal across the traditional political spectrums (even if they split their base over the years). “Yes we can!” was one of Obama’s main catchphrases; it appealed to black and other minority voters, but also a wider electorate desperate for change and looking for something different. British voters wanted something similar in the lead-up to the 1997 General Election; a tired administration could have been voted out by a talented opposition of monkeys, but skillful presentation and policy decisions by Labour wiped the floor with the Conservatives – Blair’s “third way” meant whatever he wanted it to mean on any particular day.

Soundbites are brilliantly effective if they capture the public’s attention; Obama and Blair are two examples I’ve already mentioned – “Education, education, education!” Prime Minister Blair exclaimed at the height of his popularity. It didn’t actually mean anything; there was no policy initiative behind his declaiming of the word.

You need to be able to read your audience as well; if your speech is due to go on for twenty minutes, but you can see that you’re losing them after fifteen, then think on your feet and bring things to a rapid close.

In order to do that, of course, you need to be receptive to social cues from your audience, and self-aware enough to know that you need to take a back step. If you’re considered to be an authority on the subject you’re talking about, or if you can present yourself as an authority during the talk itself, then you’ve managed half the solution. Being charismatic connects the dots on most of the rest.

I attended a conference once in which the keynote speaker was somewhat anticipated, having flown over specifically from the USA to attend. She was well-known to be an expert on the subject, well-respected, and engaging. But she delivered the entirety of the talk in a monotone from the script in front of her, without engaging with the audience, and was very flustered during parts of the Q&A. I cringed for her, and I don’t recall any of the speech now because I struggled to get past the presentation – or lack thereof.

Speech-writing and speech-delivery are two very specific skills, and not everyone has them. To write a speech that soars and hits all the right notes requires work; you need to have an instinct and a feel for what will work, and a passion for working hard to find the right pitch. But be passionate and love words and maybe that’s a start.

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