This originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Toastmaster magazine.
There was a time when flowery, dense language was the standard for public speaking—18th-century North America, for instance. Here is the beginning of George Washington’s 1796 farewell speech:
The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression …
And that excerpt is far from the conclusion of just that first sentence. Imagine using language like that in a Toastmasters meeting!
Analyze why the opening of this august speech wouldn’t work today and two major problems quickly become apparent. First, it could have been cut down at least by half; and second, even after 20 seconds, the audience still doesn’t know much about the speaker’s purpose.
Fortunately for modern-day speakers, the Toastmasters educational program emphasizes the skill of speechwriting. Here are a few guidelines to mastering the art and technique of writing speeches.
My Kingdom for a Subject!
Need a speech topic? First identify your purpose. What do you want to do? Inform? Persuade? Inspire? Educate? Next, home in on a subject. You can select something most people can relate to—or most people in your audience can relate to—or something arcane that will require a little bit of research.
Step three: Start brainstorming.
What about your Ultimate Frisbee team? Your cat’s finicky ways? Your child’s piano recital? Your childhood dream of becoming president and what became of it? Holiday traditions in your country or region? Vanilla or chocolate? Cake or pie?
A word of caution: It may go without saying, but when it comes to controversial topics such as religion or politics, make sure you know the club policies governing such subjects—and the audience’s sensibilities.
Elena Paweta, DTM, is a member of Poland’s First Toastmasters club, based in Warsaw. She is also an organizer of TEDx events, programs in local communities that feature a diversity of speakers across several disciplines who address a variety of subjects. This gives her particular insight into crafting and refining speech topics.
“As we advance and become more experienced and confident, we can cover topics that may influence others,” Paweta says. “We can use this amazing tool [public speaking] to change people’s lives for the better.”
Deceptively Simple: The Structure
Ramona J. Smith is the 2018 World Champion of Public Speaking. Watch her winning speech and you’ll get a clue to what helps make it great: a solid, simple outline. She enters the stage and crouches down in a boxer’s stance, throwing punches in the air. She explains that we may get knocked down in life, but if we persevere we will be “still standing,” a phrase she repeats throughout, for emphasis. She then goes on to describe three events in her life that she had to fight through (extending the metaphor) and expands on each.
And how does she conclude the speech? With the phrase she offered in the beginning: “still standing.” It’s simple, yet so powerful.
To supplement that structure, Smith makes the speech come alive with vocal variety, exuberant body language (shadowboxing), and even a prop (a towel thrown to the ground).
Smith, President of the Cy-Fair Super Speakers Club in Cypress, Texas, says the key to writing a great speech is to keep it simple. “I start with the skeleton, then start to throw meat on the bones,” she says.
World Champion Ramona J. Smith says the key to writing a great speech is to keep it simple. “I start with the skeleton, then start to throw meat on the bones.”
She writes speeches in three parts—introduction, body, and conclusion. In the body she identifies three points, just as in her championship speech. “Then I flesh out those three points, add transitions between each and then a call to action between the third point and the conclusion.”
Smith has another key piece of advice: Call on fellow Toastmasters for help. “Look in your club for writers,” she says. “There’s an English teacher or writer in every club—see if they can help you.”
Act Out—But in a Good Way
Toastmaster Wayne Lebowitz, a retired jeweler from Somerville, Massachusetts, always knew he wanted to be an actor. Although he ultimately found his career in the family business, he brings theatrical sensibilities to public speaking.
Writing a speech is like writing a script, he says. Start with an attention-grabbing device. For instance:
“How many of you have hunted a bear? Okay, I see by the lack of hands raised that none of you have. Let me tell you about bear hunting.” Using the bear motif, he demonstrates another approach: “I just found out that there are only three bears left in Somerville, Massachusetts. That’s three more than I thought we had.”
Lebowitz emphasizes that people remember stories. “I realize when I give a speech, I’ve got to entertain them. Otherwise, whatever my message is, it’s lost.”
He suggests the same format that Ramona J. Smith uses. “The body of your speech should consist of three bullet points,” he says. “And have a story to back up each point.” Lebowitz recommends closing the speech by reiterating those bullet points and tying together the closing and opening.
At a recent meeting of his club, Somerville Toastmasters, the first speaker gave a speech about a work situation by providing three points in the beginning, then elaborating on them, and returning to them again at the end. Because she used vocal variety and good details, the simple structure worked.
“Show, don’t tell” is advice often offered to writers whose work needs a little spark. The concept can also apply to speechwriting. Paint a picture for your audience with the language you use.
Jing Humphreys, DTM, a member of the Earlybirds Club in Butler, Pennsylvania, is a believer in the power of word choice.
“I like vivid word descriptions,” she says. “Like you can feel it happening in front of you because of the choice of words the speaker uses.”
Need a speech topic? First identify your purpose. What do you want to do? Inform? Persuade? Inspire? Educate?
Despite working in a highly technical field where there isn’t as much room for creativity with language, outside of work she is a proponent of conjuring up dramatic images to move the audience. (Example: “a big, vast ocean so clear you can almost see the bottom of it.”) This is also the message she imparts as a mentor and an evaluator: To tell a story, use powerful imagery, and don’t be afraid to provoke strong feelings in your audience.
“I just evaluated one of my club members,” she says. “I told him ‘Scare me and then save me.’ The audience needs to know why am I listening to you—why is this important to me?”
Don’t forget that you need to know your audience. If the venue is in a country with a nuanced culture and/or a culture that has significant differences from your own, make sure you’ve done your homework so you avoid potentially offensive gaffes. If you want to add jokes, try them out on others first to be sure your humor isn’t tone-deaf.
Include the Visual
Visual aids can be a powerful addition, and in some cases a necessary one, to a presentation. Technical presentations generally require the speaker to provide graphics, charts, schematics, etc., in order to fully explain the topic. Non-technical presentations, too, can gain a boost from props or visual aids.
Check that all your references are correct. Did Queen Elizabeth really give the Gettysburg Address or was your mind wandering when you wrote that?
A word about PowerPoint: Don’t read from the slides. The slides should supplement your words. In most cases, you can use words for the narrative, and the projector screen for ideas that are best conveyed graphically. The words you speak and the images you show should complement each other.
I am not a fan of PowerPoint, so when I did the “Get Comfortable With Visual Aids” project in Toastmasters’ old Competent Communication manual, I opted for a wig mannequin and demonstrated different ways Muslim women wear head scarves. It gave me the opportunity to personalize my speech and present something tangible, and it supported my discussion of why Muslim women wear head scarves.
Not So Fast!
Transitional statements help the audience easily follow you from one section of your speech to the next, or from one idea to another.
There is a wide range of transitions that serve different functions. Some keep the audience focused on the topic or time frame you are discussing; some provide examples of a particular subject area, reinforcing a point and introducing examples seamlessly. Here are just a few common transitions:
1. To tie your introduction to your first point in the body of the speech:
• Let me give you an example …
• To get started, let’s examine …
• First, I’m going to discuss …
2. To move from one point within the body to the next:
• In the same way, this item tends to melt in the heat …
• Let me show you something equally troubling …
• This is similar to the kind of speech we’re studying …
3. To begin the conclusion to your speech:
• All in all, this educational journey was …
• Looking back, I’m glad that I …
• To sum up, these three reasons are why …
If your speech feels or sounds awkward as you move through the main points, lead the listener with transitions, like those listed above. When in doubt, try reading that section aloud to someone else; if they are unclear about the connection between two ideas or two statements, look for a proper transition.
The Final Steps
Always do a final review of your writing before turning your attention to rehearsing. A few essential areas to look over:
- Double-check your grammar and pronunciation. This may seem like a no-brainer, but don’t assume you have it right. A great classic reference book to aid with this is The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer. Many other useful books—and grammar-related websites—exist as well, including The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, Write Right! by Jan Venolia, grammarbook.com, and www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl.
- Examine your writing for continuity of theme; make sure you aren’t wandering from your main point. Remove or revise anything that takes your speech off track.
- Make sure everything makes logical sense. Sometimes you get so deep into your subject that you mention ideas only you can understand.
- Check that all your references are correct. Did Queen Elizabeth really give the Gettysburg Address or was your mind wandering when you wrote that?
- Don’t go overboard with quotes. They can be used to enhance a speech, but make sure the quote you use is pithy, brief, and very relevant. Be sure you’re citing the correct author of the quote (pro tip: Look somewhere besides social media to verify the source).
When you’ve done all you can do to polish the writing of your speech, you will feel confident and ready. The Toastmasters guidelines for speechwriting will prepare you well.