10 Steps to a Better Speech

Executive speech coach Cliff Kennedy offers a proven, 10-step approach to the speech-writing process.

ThinkstockPhotos-506598495Every speech and presentation goes through some form of a writing process. Whether you’re writing a short speech yourself or want to give your plenary session speakers a tip sheet, executive speech coach Cliff Kennedy — today’s guest blog contributor — offers a proven, 10-step approach to the process.

  1. Know your audience. You are not giving a speech to just deliver a message, you must deliver something of value to your audience. Make sure that you understand their concerns and challenges, and what is happening in the world that affects them, so that your message addresses those needs.
  1. Define your vision. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, once wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” What is the future state you want your audience to long for? This is the vision you need to share.
  1. Craft your vision into a short, memorable phrase that becomes the theme of your speech. Make it concise, meaningful, and transportable — so your audience can use it when they communicate the vision to others. For example, an IT marketing executive I recently worked with used the theme “Go Beyond” to describe the workplace of the future his company was working to create.
  1. Organize your speech into primary and secondary messages. Primary messages are your conclusions, and secondary messages support those conclusions via facts, data, arguments, comparisons, and stories. Many of my clients get overwhelmed during this step, thinking that they must share a mountain of messages with their audience. I always respond with this exercise: Pretend you only have three minutes to speak and you can only make five declarative statements. What would those statements be? Those are your primary messages.
  1. Create an outline. This is the overall structure of your speech, or what I call the “Experience Arc.” This can be done by assembling your messages in a timeline or an “if/then” scenario — what I call a “logical” structure. The second part is a “dramatic” structure that draws on the tenets of storytelling (flashbacks, parallel structure, sub-plots, etc.), to engage your audience and make your speech memorable.
  1. Write your script. Determine what works best for you: a complete word-for-word script, just talking points, or a combination of the two. I always recommend using a two-column script format (the table function in Microsoft Word works well for this). Start on the right side of the page by writing what you will say. On the left side, describe or identify the supporting visual.
  1. Use clear, direct, conversational language. Speak in an active voice whenever possible, and pay attention to your phrasing, alternating short and long sentences.
  1. Incorporate the “Power of 3” — three parts to a phrase, three consecutive examples. This is a classic rhetorical device used by everyone from Shakespeare (“Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your ears.”) to Abraham Lincoln (“Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”) to the IT marketing executive I mentioned before, who described his workplace of the future as “Our dream. Our expertise. Our responsibility.”
  1. Write in pictures and sounds by using descriptive language to paint a mental picture or words that are pronounced the same as the noise they describe, like  “bang” or “zip.”
  1. Read it out loud. This critical step helps you correct awkward phrasing and clarify transitions. Only after you have read your script out loud and are satisfied with its structure and flow should you begin to develop your accompanying visuals and media. Remember, your visuals should always support your message.

Cliff KennedyCliff Kennedy is the founder and president of Kennedy Speech Communications. He is an executive speech coach, who has spent his entire career creating high-stakes, high-impact audience experiences. His background as a creative director, writer, and producer of corporate events has given him unique insight into what audiences expect and how they connect with speakers and presenters.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

  • Scott Marker

    Great pointers. Thanks Cliff Kennedy