Speechwriting Tips and Techniques: Seven Secrets

We have probably all heard the oft-repeated quote that according to “surveys” public speaking is “the number one fear” (rated higher even than death). I have searched repeatedly and have never been able to find empirical evidence of these “surveys.” If you have located concrete evidence of this claim, please post a blog comment. In my most recent search of snopes.com and with the help of Google, I have located two interesting finds. The first “find” is a reflection about “our deepest fear” from Marianne Williamson (1992): “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” Interestingly, according to Snopes.com, this quote has incorrectly been attributed to Nelson Mandela. My second interesting “find” is a well written dissertation about social anxiety. According to Beck (2010), “The National Comorbidity Survey, …, found that 38.6% of the sample reported experiencing some sort of social fear; of that number, 34.5% met criteria for … a disorder in which social fears cause clinically significant distress and behavioral avoidance” (p. 1). Ironically, efforts to dispel rumors tend to have the opposite effect of perpetuating them. This essay provides tips and techniques to help the effectiveness of your public speaking and in turn minimize your fear of giving speeches if you have that fear.

If I did not frighten you away with the above long-winded introductory paragraph, let us explore an uplifting article from the November 2013 Toastmaster magazine entitled “Speechwriting Secrets” written by Denise Graveline, a communications consultant. Graveline (2013) identifies seven secrets: 1) prepare systematically; 2) begin strong; 3) select a structure; 4) speak your stories; 5) spice up your word selection; 6) seek out humorous twists; and 7) end strong.

Prepare Systematically

Graveline (2013) recommends reading your draft speech out loud and then editing any awkward words or phrases. This process can help you check your speech for timing, pacing, organization (structure), and help you generate new ideas. If you are planning to give a Technology, Entertainment, or Design (TED) talk, you are required to rehearse. Whether on Broadway or off, any stage performer or professional speaker knows the value of rehearsals and the added boost of the dress rehearsal. Supportive coaches can help keep the “ear” and “hear” in the re-hear-sal.

Begin Strong

Steve Jobs has been praised for an incredibly long list of accomplishments. Perhaps his least recognized skills were his speechwriting and speech delivery instincts. When Steve took the stage to introduce a new product, he always seemed to grab his audience with a strong beginning. On 12 October 1988 at the San Francisco Symphony Hall when Jobs appeared in front of three thousand people, he began his NeXT launch with the simple words, “It’s great to be back” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 233). Unlike his speaking Macintosh from a few years earlier, Jobs knew to pause for the thunderous applause. Most of us will never speak in front of thousands and get thunderous applause, but timing and strong, well-chosen beginning words are important. According to Graveline (2013), we should “take advantage of the moment right before the speech begins, when a hush falls over the crowd” (p. 16). I was taught to never begin a speech with a lame apology, but I hear countless presentations that begin with a sob story about having a cold or “couldn’t sleep last night.” If we begin strong, we might get a great chance “to be back.” Weak excuses cause our listeners to mentally exit. Pausing for applause or a silent hush can generate anticipation.

Select a Structure

Mario Cuomo (1993) describes his interesting speechwriting approach in his book, More Than Words. Mario mentions that he found that he had to write his own speeches, in most cases, in order for the “content, style, and language” to be “mostly my own” (p. xiv). Cuomo made a few exceptions for major speeches, but spoke extemporaneously most of the time as he didn’t always have the time to structure a prepared speech. This approach sounds very familiar to me as I worked on a speechwriting team at National Guard Bureau for several years. Some of our generals would accept a speech somewhat verbatim, but several would cherry pick a few ideas and then internalize a quite different final product. Occasionally for a major event, or for a video produced with a teleprompter, the general would stay with an approved script, but flying freely was usually the preferred approach. Regardless of the approach, a beginning, middle, and ending were usually required elements. Graveline (2013) connects this process to the classical “rule of three” (p. 16), which I thought my high school English teacher, Mr. Rusnak, invented. However, even our Latin teachers always reminded us of “veni, vidi, vici.” Speakers need to come to the stage, see eye-to-eye with the audience, and conquer any fears while avoiding any tendencies to ramble along without a structure.

Speak Your Stories

Lincoln, Reagan, and a few other famous people have become iconic in their reputations for storytelling. Lincoln seemed to have an anecdote or joke for every occasion. After listening intently to a long series of recommendations about how to end the Civil War successfully, he told a tale of a family that moved so many times that their chickens would cross their legs and wait to be tied up (abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org, 2015). In other words, listening to too much advice can lead to analysis paralysis. Graveline’s (2013) main point is to “just tell it” rather than read it. Cuomo (1993) tells one anecdote of Galileo being forced to kneel down and profess that the Earth was stationary. Galileo repeated the required words, but added quietly as he stood up, “E pur si muove” (But still it moves). Stories can punctuate any point as Lincoln and Cuomo demonstrate, but delivery with pacing and eye contact helps to make a story memorable and all the more poignant.

Spice Up Your Word Selection

Cuomo (1993) makes a key point with the title of his book, More Than Words, but he also displays a knack for turning a clever phrase. For example, when speaking at a Presbyterian church: “We are, of course, from two parts of the Christian tradition. I am a Roman Catholic. You are Presbyterians…Our priests…are celibate, but we call them Father. Your pastors are allowed to marry and have children, but you don’t call them Fathers” (p. 66). Graveline (2013) focuses on using “concrete nouns and active verbs” (p. 18). Cuomo uses a turn of phrase and humor to move into a speech about common Christian (humanistic) principles of helping needy people and peoples. Words conjure up pictures, ideas, and principles. Words can be bland or spicy; words can indeed be more than words.

Seek Out Humorous Twists

The Washington Post (2015) has a humorous collection of the ten funniest commencement addresses, Conan O’Brien’s 2011 address provides a good example of research with some twists. O’Brien observes that Dartmouth is famous for fictitious graduates: “Dartmouth, you have an inferiority complex, and you should not. You have graduated more great fictitious Americans than any other college. Meredith Grey of Grey’s Anatomy. Pete Campbell from Mad Men. Michael Corleone from The Godfather. In fact, I look forward to next years’ valedictory address by your esteemed classmate, Count Chocula.” Fact checking might reveal more fictitious graduates from Harvard or Yale, but Dartmouth probably has much more reason to laugh at themselves in the ivy shadows of the other ivies.

End Strong

Lincoln ended the Gettysburg Address with the following long sentence:

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

 Image from http://abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/ 

As a writing coach, if one of my students submitted the above sentence in a student essay, I would probably recommend the following points:

**Don’t begin a sentence with an expletive such as “It is.” Let us rather identify the subject of our sentence (or possibly the antecedent for “it”).

**This sentence is longer than our recommend 25 words or fewer (or approximately 2.5 lines of text). Let us break this sentence into smaller chunks.

**This sentence has several repeated words such as “devotion” and “people.” Let us try to use each word only once in any given sentence.

Actually, most of the above points are “tongue in cheek” because oratory is quite different from written prose. Repetition, for example, is very effective is speeches, but not always effective in written prose. Also, the technique of running one sentence into the next is quote common in speeches as we often want to flow gracefully from one point to the next in spoken text. Some of the remarkable elements of Lincoln’s strong ending are as follows:

**Effective repetition: devotion and people.

**Simple words with powerful images (strong nouns of birth, death, earth, cause, devotion, task) and (strong simple verbs of take, gave, resolve, died, perish, and have).

**Clauses woven in a rhythmical pattern that yields a musical and poetic cadence.

Concluding Thoughts

Public speaking may still be a prominent fear for many, but with good technique, membership in clubs such as Toastmasters, and watching TED talks for ideas and inspiration, public speaking can be attainable by a large swath of the general public. Rath (2007) lists Communication as a key strength in his Strength Finder 2.0 book. Not everyone will achieve the skills of Lincoln, Cuomo, or Jobs, but everyone can improve by emulating great communicators and following the seven tips of preparing systematically, beginning strong, selecting a structure, speaking your stories, spicing up your words, seeking humorous twists, and ending strong. Perhaps Mario Cuomo (1993) sums it up the best, “This is not easy to articulate: it must be seen and lived. It’s largely a matter of style and emphasis requiring, at times, an exquisite delicacy of judgment and, always, an unrelenting desire to do—to accomplish good—rather than just to ennoble ourselves by saying good” (p. 6).


abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org. (2015). Abraham Lincoln’s stories and humor. Retrieved from http://abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/

Beck, R. D. (2010). The speaking cognitions and attention scale: An empirically-derived measure of public speaking [dissertation]. Carbondale: IL: Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Cuomo, M. (1993). More than words: The speeches of Mario Cuomo. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Graveline, D. (2013). Speechwriting secrets: 7 tactics, tips and tools you can borrow from the pros. Toastmaster: The Magazine for Communicators & Leaders. November 2013.

Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. New York: NY: Simon & Schuster.

Lincoln, A. (1863). The Gettysburg Address. Retrieved from http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm

Rath, T. (2007). Strengths finder 2.0. New York: NY: Gallup Press.

The Washington Post (2015). Funniest commencement addresses. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/

Williamson, D. (1992). A return to love: Reflections on the principles of “A Course in Miracles.” New York: NY: HarperCollins.

 image from http://abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/ 

About the Author:

Mike Piellusch, ACB, joined Toastmasters circa 1985.  His first club was Jetstream Toastmasters, which was founded in 1957 and is still going strong.  Due to a Silicon Valley job change, Mike dropped out of Toastmasters in 1986 and was “club-less” until he found Gribble Gatekeepers at the Humphreys Engineer Center in 2015.  Mike earned his Competent Communicator Award (CC) at Gribble Gatekeepers and served as Vice President of Education (VPE), Club President, and Newsletter Editor.  Mike has also been a member of the REAL Advanced Club where he served as Vice President of Public Relations (VPPR) and Sergeant at Arms.  He is currently a fairly new member of the Belvoir Club (founded coincidentally in 1985).  A very slow driver in the “middle lane,”  Mike earned his Advanced Communicator Bronze (ACB) in 2018 after 33 years of speaking, thinking about speaking, and challenging a few dedicated VPEs .

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