The art of writing and delivering a great speech

Leaders from Winston Churchill to Barack Obama understood a good speech is a powerful way to get through to an audience. Here’s how it can work for you, too

Rhetoric, the power of persuasion, has been inspiring people or motivating them to back a cause for more than 2,000 years. It remains one of the most compelling ways to communicate ideas. In 1588, Queen Elizabeth I’s famous speech to her troops at Tilbury, about having the “body of a weak and feeble woman; but… the heart and stomach of a king,” was a defining moment in her reign. Barack Obama’s soaring oratory helped win him the US presidency in 2008. And Greta Thunberg’s short and sharp speeches on climate change, turbo-charged by social media, have cut through to millions of young people worldwide.

There is science to it, too. Neuro-economist Dr. Paul Zak has written about the effect of storytelling on the neurochemical oxytocin, which he calls the moral molecule, and how humans are hard-wired to react to stories. He concludes: “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains.” As well as triggering the release of oxytocin, studies have shown that stories can impact a person’s dopamine levels (generating pleasure) and those of stress hormone cortisol in the blood. Politicians do it, advertisers do it – and you can, too.

So whether you are addressing global affairs, an international business conference or talking to your employees, investors or target audiences, here are some tips about preparing, writing and delivering a persuasive speech.

Understand your audience

“Freedom or death,” was the clarion call of militant female suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst in November 1913. “We shall fight on the beaches,” growled Winston Churchill in 1940. “I have a dream,” repeated Martin Luther King, in his mesmerising 1963 speech in Washington DC.

These lines from speeches made an impact at the moment of delivery and have rung through the ages. Each speech captured a moment in time, and these lines put out a simple, succinct, but striking message. Crucially, they were all messages that resonated with their audiences. Audience focus underpins modern communications theory and a successful speech is one that aligns speaker and audience, in appearance, if not in fact. Giving a speech is the ultimate audience engagement, so take the time to try and understand the motivations and interests of those you’ll be addressing.

Use rhetorical devices

Tony Blair once gave a speech in Southampton as UK prime minister where he spoke about missions, pledges, ambitions and challenges. Today, we only recall his third line, which talked of his priority being “education, education, education”. By simply repeating the word, it remains memorable, and is arguably Blair’s most famous speech. There are many other rhetorical devices that anyone can learn and use to make an impression, including golden metaphors, alluring alliteration, extreme exaggeration and rhymes that chime. Using authentic personal stories, or anecdotes, can be a short-cut to connecting with an audience. Obama did this to great effect in his inaugural address in Washington DC, in 2009, comparing his personal story to America’s journey.

Optimal structure

All speeches need good structure. Grab your audience’s attention with a strong opening, signpost a clear progression through the speech and, ideally, finish with a rousing ending. Like any good story, an effective speech needs a beginning, middle and end. As a rule, when speaking in public, it’s better to use short words and short sentences. A good speech should be like soup: easy to digest.

Too many cooks spoil the broth

Writing a speech by committee is a terrible idea. It leads to confusing messaging, chaotic processes, long and bland speeches. Nevertheless, it is a process that demands some time and thought, so it is wise to either appoint someone to lead the effort or hire a professional. At the outset, focus on getting across three messages. The “rule of three” is the observation that ideas given in threes are especially interesting and memorable to an audience. Advertisers and politicians do it all the time. Work, rest and play. Veni, vidi, vici. Ideally, a speech should be 10-20 minutes long, which is the typical adult attention span. At an average of 100 words spoken per minute, that means 1,000-2,000 words. Ultimately, with any speech, less is more.

Use humour with care

Unless you’re a stand-up comedian, don’t overdo the jokes. A self-effacing anecdote or amusing one-liner can be enough to get an audience on side, or be handy if someone at the back drops a tray of glasses. But take care. In 1991, jewellery-chain boss Gerald Ratner stood up in front of 6,000 people at an Institute of Directors event and joked that his cut-glass sherry decanters were “total crap”. He was a jokey character and he’d told that particular joke many times, but the following day’s newspaper headlines reporting his comment pretty much sunk his business. He’s still lamenting it more than 30 years later.

Exploit limitless opportunities

What do NatWest Group, Vodafone, BP, Morgan Stanley, easyJet and Mastercard have in common? Well, none of them are artificial intelligence firms, but they are all speaking at this June’s AI Summit in London. Why? Because they want to be part of the conversation about the benefits, advantages and new opportunities of AI. You can be part of something bigger than your company, too. There are no end of conferences addressing key issues from environment and sustainability to social matters. Think of a speech as thought leadership and use a speaking opportunity to position yourself or your company at the forefront of a debate, whether or not it’s part of your core business.

Where to speak

If you are keen to speak, be proactive and seek out opportunities that tie in with your wider business priorities or identify events that have the right audience in target markets. When Apple CEO Tim Cook wanted to connect with the critical Chinese partners and customers who make up almost 20 per cent of the company’s sales, he didn’t record an online message or take to the stage in Palo Alto, he spoke in person at the China Development Forum in Beijing. And it went down well. John F Kennedy gave one of his most memorable speeches, Ich bin ein Berliner, in Berlin. Most sectors have key annual conferences or events, either national or international, and events taking place in countries around the world throughout the year. So start by identifying ones that would be a fit for where the people you want to reach will be.

Delivering a speech

Public speaking can be taught and learned. Politicians and business leaders invest in training to hone their speaking skills. It helps to eradicate all the ums, errs and ahhs, and to give the speaker confidence. Post-training, with a completed final draft of any actual speech, it is imperative that the speech giver recites – out loud – the address, several times. Difficult words can be altered, links improved, pauses inserted, tongue-twisters eliminated and constructive feedback offered, all with the aim of giving the best possible chance of a slick and compelling delivery when it matters.

Beyond the room

In October 2010, then British chancellor George Osborne stood up in Parliament and delivered a speech announcing drastic spending cuts to public services. His opening line, about Britain stepping “back from the brink”, was alliterative, succinct and memorable. When politicians give major speeches, their comms teams invariably circulate key paragraphs, memorable lines or snappy soundbites the day or evening before to amplify the message and maximise the following day’s media coverage. But the same goes for the likes of Greta Thunberg. The Swedish environmental campaigner uses the power of social media to supercharge her message around the world. You can utilise this approach on your own website and social media channels.

When it comes to speeches, preparation, research and clarity over messaging is key if they are to be successful. Where there is discord, may we bring harmony, as Margaret Thatcher said on becoming prime minister, quoting St Francis of Assisi. Get in touch to see how we can help bring your speaking ideas to life with minimal stress and maximum impact.